Saturday, 21 May 2011
Dirk Collier's "The Emperor's Writings" – A Book Review
With the exception of maybe Emperor Ashoka, no other Indian ruler has achieved as much name and fame as the great Mughal ruler Abu’l Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, more commonly known as Emperor Akbar or Akbar the Great. Akbar’s reign has been chronicled by his court historian Abul Fazal in his works that go by the names Akbarnama and Ain-i-akbari. Other historians, contemporaries of Abul Fazal such as Badayuni, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and Shaikhzada Rashidi, have also written biographies of Akbar. Akbar, in addition to his obvious empire building abilities, was a lover and patron of books and the arts. However, Akbar was most probably dyslexic and could barely write. Therefore, an autobiography of Akbar doesn’t exist. Until now that is. Belgian historian Dirk Collier has written a fictionalised autobiography of Emperor Akbar in the form of a series of letters from Akbar to his son and successor Prince Salim, later to be crowned as Emperor Jahangir.
Abkar’s story, is the story of how a 13 year old boy inherited a shaky and small empire, actually a slim stretch of land along the Yamuna and the Ganges, from his father Humayun who died in a freak accident (falling down the stairs of his library) and who had to fight very hard to hold on to his inheritance immediately after Humayun’s death. It is also the story of a visionary who envisaged a country where his subjects would like in peace and harmony, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Considering the fact that Akbar lived in the 16th century where everyone, Hindus, Shias, Sunnis and Christians, took their religion very seriously, such an aspiration was truly revolutionary. Akbar’s story, as narrated by Collier, can also be construed as a treatise (not unlike Kautilya’s Arthashastra or Sun Tzu’s Art of War) on how to build an empire and how to hold on to it. Most importantly, it a father’s advice to his son who the father thinks is not disciplined enough to inherit his mantle. There are lessons on so many matters which would be of use to his successor, such as how a smaller army could defeat a larger force, how Afghans could be beaten in Afghanistan, how a defeated enemy ought to be treated and the like. It is an entreaty from a father to his wayward son to mend his ways, though Prince Salim has let his father down in the most painful way possible – by having Abul Fazl, Akbar’s trusted friend, the author of Akbarnama, murdered.
Collier has managed to capture in this fictionalised autobiography the spirit of those tumultuous days when the Afghan rulers of Hindustan were being replaced by Turkomen and other Central Asian raiders who traced their lineage to Timur and Ghengis Khan. Descriptions of battles are immaculate and more importantly, not repetitive, though there are many, many battles. Collier has also managed to convey the various facets of Akbar’s personality, his (moderate) love of wine and women, his curiosity to learn new things, ranging from religion (of all hues) and culture to western weaponry. Collier’s language is light and simple and it is a pleasure to read, never dragging at any point, though his tome runs to just over six hundred pages (including tables and annexures).
One of the good things about this fictional autobiography is that certain sections have been narrated by Akbar’s personal physician Hakim Ali Gilani, Akbar’s tutor and friend Mir Abul Latif and his favourite wife Princess Salima. This ensures that the portrait drawn by Collier is not entirely with the same brush.
Towards the middle of the book we hear Abkar tell Prince Salim and his readers that his destiny was to build a united, powerful, invincible Hindustan. After that, once in a while, one finds statements that wouldn’t be out of context even today. When Akbar is desperate for an heir, he goes to Ajmir to seek the blessings of Shaykh Salim Chisti, a descendant of the famous Khwajah Muin-ud-din Muhammad Chisti. Akbar wants his descendant to be ideally born through his favourite wife, Princess Salima, his cousin and widow of Bairam Khan, who is also a descendant of the house of Temur. At that, Shaykh Salim Chisti advises Akbar to make his firstborn ‘a son of Hindustan.’ Shaykh Salim Chisti’s wish is later fulfilled. Prince Salim is born of his Hindu wife, the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber. When Akbar makes plans to capture Kashmir, he says, ‘Is Kashmir not our natural border? Is it imaginable, is it conceivable that I would leave such an important land in the hands of a foreign ruler? Never! Kashmir belongs to Hindustan; it is mine!’
It is well-known that Akbar’s grandfather Babur did not like Hindustan. Missing his native Samarkhand and Fergana, he laments in Baburnama that “Hindustan is a country of few charms. There are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. In its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.” Babur always wanted to get back to Samarkhand and re-capture it. He never did. His grandson Akbar on the other hand, made Kabul and Khandahar a part of his empire and was in a position to conquer those Central Asian cities his grandfather yearned for. However, he never did. Collier has Akbar ponder thus. “… I was strongly tempted to march north, to Samarqand – where the bones of our great ancestor Temur the Iron are resting; Samarqand the priceless jewel that was stolen from my grandfather by the Uzbeg usurpers. But then again, I thought to myself: What does this have to do with me? Why should I spend the remaining years of my life in lands where I have never set foot – lands where, reportedly, winters are long and cold, the soil barren, good food scare and the women ugly?”
Collier tells his readers that he has on the whole stuck with the known truth. However, it cannot be denied that, this story, as narrated by Akbar himself, shows Akbar in a very positive light. Was Akbar such a paragon of perfection, one of forced to ask? I am no historian, but I do know from sources such as Wikipedia that Akbar was not so liberal and tolerant of Hinduism and other faiths in his early days. In The Emperor's Writings, Collier shows Akbar in the most favourable light throughout. When Akbar commits a blunder, such as when he sends an inexperienced Raja Birbal, his Wazīr-e Azam (Grand Vizier), to lead a military force into Afghan badlands which gets Birbal killed along with his troops. Akbar concedes that it’s his fault and still smells of roses. However, it can be argued that this fictional autobiography has been written as if by an ageing Akbar towards the last years of his life and his memories are doubtless coloured by his experiences and no longer contain the prejudice of his early days.
Author Dirk Collier is a multi-faceted personality. He serves on the board of Johnson & Johnson in Belgium and a number of other companies. He is also a visiting Professor at the University of Antwerp.