Whiff of history

Whiff of history

lead review

Whiff of history

royal tussle The Mughal throne had a violent history.You are not surprised when a eunuch begins the story. Not long ago we had a slave Tiro setting out to write his master Cicero’s biography in Imperium by Robert Harris. Eunuchs and slaves and private secretaries attached to rich (and royal or political) households have a ring-side seat.

 A foreign duo taking turns to relate the last days of Shah Jahan and a eunuch giving the opening and finishing touches help us see The Crimson Throne through a glass, darkly. Kakar perceives the beginning of the end of the Mughal Empire with Shah Jehan still on the throne.

“But if you insist on asking ‘why’, then I will say that the will to govern, to rule, is lost, my friend. I look around at the dazzling splendour of the court, and all I see is an emptiness of purpose. Our emperor is tired and seeks rejuvenation in women’s bodies. The Wali Ahad values learning more than governance. The only prince whose will to rule is intact is a bigot.”

Accurate placements of the triad who make up the factual fiction of The Crimson Throne. For more than six decades we have had the image of Rehman as Shah Jehan in the 1946 hit presiding over the romance of Sohail (Saigal) and Ruhi (Ragini). Kakar is more down to earth and what was romance in the celluloid becomes an array of aprodisiacs, Goanese brothels and Manucci’s “ointment”. Shah Jehan is no more the kindly king but one who excelled in devising new tortures for the convicted. Kakar has sieved his materials well to come up with some stomach-churners including the ‘Kettle of Gruel’ act. With so many scams swirling around in Delhi, it is hard not to hiccup when the novelist refers to the foreigners finding a goldmine in the Mughal court. Manucci outdoes a Spectrum scam in revealing his exorcist powers.

Kakar lingers fondly over Murad Baksh’s breakfast which includes trotters of a kid goat cooked with a little turmeric, onions and whole black peppers, Aurangazeb’s lunch consisting of rice, lentils, bitter gourd and pink radishes (almost brahmanic!) and M.
Gassendi’s guests eating duck in a savoury orange sauce …

 As for the historical background, The Crimson Throne does not profess giving anything new except details found in Manucci’s Storia do Mogor, Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire and other available sources. As for the details in these works proved wrong by later historians, Kakar adroitly transforms Manucci and Bernier into mutual critics. The known facts of history like Dara’s failure to capture Kandahar and his attempt to translate the Upanishads into Persian are retold very well and the authorial analysis points to Akbar as a rationalist and Dara as a mystic. It is all managed very well, for Kakar is an expert in telling a stress-free narrative even when he has to deal with the powerful courtiers who were experts in shifting their loyalty to one or the other of Shah Jehan’s sons.

 Manucci is in Dara’s retinue and Bernier is with Aurangazeb’s court. The two Europeans play a chapter-duet which sounds almost like a critique of contemporary India. Though historical fiction can churn up plentiful from the author’s imagination, Kakar prefers to remain fairly close to the parameters of historical facts. His conclusions get down to us through the European voices. Who is the cause of today’s communal divide in India?
Bernier reporting Aurangazeb’s exhortation of his troops:

“If that disgusting infidel Dara ascends the throne, the religion of Mohammed will be persecuted and the country will resound with the cries of tyrannised Mohammedans. Instead of noble mosques, hideous temples crowded with idols of gargoyles will be erected all over the land. Instead of congregations of pious men, modest and god-fearing, who ceaselessly proclaim the greatness and virtues of Allah, what you will have are taverns and houses  of ill-fame spreading their poison in devout Mohammedan households.”

“Treason’s secret knife and a traitor’s hidden rage” get in action and we have an excellent recap of Aurangazeb’s forces attacking the imperial army concluding the battle of Samugarh. The killing of Dara, imprisonment of Shah Jehan and the many executions that follow are all aftercourses for The Crimson Throne. Women also come and go. Rajput women committing sati, women confined to Muslim harems seeking comfort on the sly, the Goanese Maria’s infinite capacity as a go-between, Jahanara, Roshanara. The tongue-in-the-cheek justification of Aurangazeb’s cruel acts from Bernier helps Kakar distance himself from placing an extremist’s crown on the emperor’s head: “He has been freer in stamping out heresy within Islam, executing many Shia, Bohra and Sufi saints who were unwilling to follow the orthodox Sunni faith. No one can doubt that a personal commitment to a religion, which we in Europe rightly regard as theologically naive and morally primitive, is the guiding force of his life.”

Here is education, entertainment and elegance subsumed into an eminently readable text. So what next, Sudhirji?

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