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.


Arun Mehta said...

Arun Mehta, Mumbai, writes,

Dirk Collier’s “The Emperor’s Writings” is a masterpiece. One of the finest books written on the Moghuls. It is a book as much about Akbar as it is about management strategies, as much about state craft as about principle of parenting. The book is sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom on almost every page.

• “The victorious and the powerful may never be short of friends and supporters, but let them not be deceived: loneliness, bitter loneliness is the fate of the defeated”

• “Good ideas are goods ideas, no matter where they come from, my son”

• “The path of self-indulgence may be pleasant and easy to follow, but it does not lead to God much less does it lead to success in this world.”

• “Be aware my son, that the first and foremost task of a King is to conquer himself.”

• “A wise King will be careful my son, he will check, recheck and check again. He will never confide in just one single individual.”

• “When you leave a void, you should not be surprised to find others make haste to fill it. When the elephant leaves, the tiger returns.”

• “Never forget people are moved by mainly two things; their own self interest and fear; a wise ruler knows how to make judicious use of both.”

• “My God deliver me from my friends and I will gladly deal with my enemies.”

• “He who tries to escape from the world in the joys of leisure, will soon discover that the neglect of duties unsettles the mind and fills it with remorse and sadness.”

• “Power is a dangerous thing my son. It poisons even the purest of minds.”

• “Eagerness to learn is the beginning of all wisdom.”

• “Strong real Kings, are never afraid to attract strong and talented helpers, who will help them grow and rise above themselves.”

• “Only those who are not lazy, my son, can really enjoy the rewards of relaxation.”

• “The difference between truth and lie is the distance between eye and ear, because what we see with our eyes is true, but what we hear with our own ears usually is not.”

• In Epilog (1) of the book, Mulazimm Hakim Ali Gilani says that Akbar’s view on religion was, “In the end, his concept of religion was a rather simple one. There is but on God, and all must worship and honor Him, and allow other people to do so in the way they prefer. All must subdue evil passions and practice virtue. All must be led by reason and not merely bow to the authority of any one man or tradition. Differences in creed or ritual are of little importance; the people of the land should be united under their king, whom God has placed above them, and whose duty is to serve God through bringing justice and prosperity to the people entrusted to his care.”

• “Akbar fundamentally was an eclectic, a rationalist as well as a mystic, who came to regard all religious as merely human attempts to honor and serve an ineffable, unattainable Reality. In his words: Each person, according to his personal condition, gives the Supreme Being a Name, but in reality, to name the Unknowable is vain.”

Dirk Collier’s knowledge and understanding of Islam and Hinduism is profound and he has written with reverence. The Emperor’s Writing is a timeless book, a classic.

@mar said...

i find your writings to be quite lucid and engaging.the way these books have been narrated makes me yearn to read these masterpieces.i have read Delhi thrice, and am travelling those times once again.
khushwant is a writer who knows how to put forward even the most serious content in a good-humoured way.i too write bits and pieces at times, but lack the congruity to continue with one subject for a long enough time.but i takes a bit of maturity to get above the apparently lecherous narrations and get through to the real is good in a keeps the non-serious and un-deserving away!