Without dramatic tension: Flipping through lifeless pages

Empire of the moghul: raiders from the north
Alex Rutherford
Hachette, 2009,
pp 436, Rs 495

I love a good historical novel. I particularly relish the kind in which the hero (or heroine) comes to a strange land and makes good. And he can only do that by adapting to the local customs, so that the alien culture conquers him in the end. The archetype of this novel is James Clavell’s Shogun — though of course I don’t know how accurate a Japanese reader would find it.

Naturally I am fascinated by Babar’s story. He has told it himself in Babar-nama, but many parts of the book are lost. This offers scope to the novelist. Alex Rutherford, however, does the genre no service in this, the first of a proposed quintet on the Mughals. A propos, why “Babur”, why “Moghul”? (The British spelled the name “Punjab” to suit themselves. Now we hear uneducated Britons say “Poon-jab”. Soon they’ll be saying “Bab-oor”.)

The back flap says nothing about Rutherford except that he lives in London. What his other works are, what his qualifications, there’s no knowing. He has visited, he says in a Historical Note, “nearly all the places important to Babar’s story.” He has of course read Babar-nama. He may not be responsible for the front flap, which says, “In a powerful and compelling series of novels... [he] will tell the largely untold story of the Moghul Emperors...”

This is an amazing claim. On the contrary, the Mughal period is the most exhaustively detailed in Indian history until 1850. It has been told by king, courtier, taxman and the odd foreign traveller. Every important document was translated during the British period. (It’s a pity we have so few since 1947.)

Babar-nama itself is magnificent. The first Mughal was a fine fighter, a good strategist and an able commander. But he loved literature (and landscaping) above all in times of peace. He was a harsh critic. He says of an uncle: “His verse is flat and insipid... Not to compose is better than to compose verse such as his.” Babar’s own prose and verse are divinely inspired, skilled in metaphor and the apt epithet. He would have found hard to digest some of the speeches Rutherford puts in his mouth:

“Now you understand why I sent my swiftest riders to summon you here. We must plan our response to this despicable threat to Ferghana’s independence. Young as I am, I am your rightful king... I have dealt with the internal threat from Qambar-Ali and his crew. Now I call on you to stand behind me against our external enemies...”
It sounds like Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.

Babar had an adventurous career, and he drank the cups of both sorrow and joy to the lees. To retell his story — filling in the gaps as well — requires a gift for endowing characters with life and for dramatic tension. This Rutherford has not. He enlivens some minor characters, notably a soldier, Wazir Khan, and a bazaar boy named Baburi whom actually he credits with much more than his due importance. But they are all wooden. Even the battle scenes are lifeless.

Rutherford commits another cardinal error, when he sacrifices historical accuracy for a lame attempt at drama. His opening scene has Babar witnessing his father’s death. In truth, Babar was at another fort many miles away when the freak accident claimed Umar Sheikh Mirza’s life.

To give Rutherford some credit, his novel is not in the least Orientalist. But those who made the jacket were. The front cover, they say, was “inspired by the Islamic battle-axe in the British Museum.” What is an Islamic battle-axe? Are there Christian swords or Hindu arrows?

The single first chapter of Abraham Eraly’s history The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals in 33 pages gives the reader a better understanding of the first Mughal than the 431 pages of this story. I read Eraly again after Rutherford. It erases some of the taste. The best you can say of Rutherford is that he means well. However — not to compose is better than to compose such a novel as this.

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