History has its heroes — warriors with flashing blades and piercing eyes; men who look adversity in the eye and often pillage and plunder when a note of mere admonishment might suffice.
But how do you write about a warrior with the heart of a poet? A man who could traverse a thousand kilometres to keep aloft the family banner, yet just long for the simple joys of Samarkand fruits?A Muslim king who held wine parties and wrote about them too in his memoirs, being honest enough not to hide uncomfortable facts from posterity?
Yes, the inscrutable Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, here in Alex Rutherford’s 430-odd page essay, gets a lavish spread, the author’s fine comb not leaving many strands unexplored. Rutherford is selective, and prefers subtleties when candour would have been better. But that is the way he writes; very little spade-for-spade talk here. Euphemism is his durable companion. But he retains the essence as he seeks to give an account of Babur’s life, not so much as a political figure, but as a man whose interests went beyond the usual.
And, what a fine account of the man who laid the foundation for the mighty Moghul Empire in India, yet almost did not! Babur grew up listening to tales of heady triumphs of Timur, for whom the world was not big enough and he wanted to revive the days of glory. When he did become the destiny’s chosen man for the revival of the glory of the Moghuls, he was young, actually too young. Predictably, in came formidable women, his grandmother and mother, who cajoled, admonished, and guided him often, but almost always used him.
Rutherford’s premise lends itself to a fine, fetching novel. In fact, his craft may just lend itself to a cinematic essay another day. He begins with young Babur’s introduction to his heritage in a dusty Central Asian fortress, how the past was better than the formidable present.
However, it is no vain exercise in nostalgia, as the seed is sown in the young man of a doughty warrior then and there. If there is a little personal accident at the beginning, there is one at the end too, as Babur prays for the life of his favourite son, Humayun, who is seriously ill. And ends up paying with his own life. It is a well documented fact of Babur’s life.
But the joy in this book lies not in the destination but in the journey. Along the way, Rutherford gives us durable insights into Babur’s life; the important role that women played in his life, his ability to record history as it unfolded around him, his language that was always precise and honest, and his love for things Central Asian. He fought hard on the plains of India, laid the foundation for an empire, yet at the height of his powers wondered if it was all worth the effort!
As Rutherford notes, “If Humayun died… it would be God’s way of saying that everything Babur had striven for, everything he had achieved, had been for nothing…that he would never found an empire or a dynasty to prosper in Hindustan…that he should never have come — or, at the very least, not tried to outdo Timur by staying on.”
Rutherford is not the first to be fascinated by Babur. Just a couple of years ago, Dilip Hiro rummaged through Babur’s memoirs for his own version of Babur Nama. Rutherford, however, takes the liberty of omitting or overplaying certain aspects of the emperor’s life. Even as he talks in detail about the father-son bonding and even mother-son relationship, he has lesser patience for man-man bonding.
That Babur was fascinated by Baburi, a handsome young man who rose to heights because of the relationship, is well documented. But Rutherford merely skims the surface, his sieve coming in handy for him. Of course, he allows himself to say, “Though the loss of Baburi had felt like the death of part of himself, that had been a personal loss. If Humayun died it would…be something more too.” That is a bit underwhelming in a novel that otherwise keeps its sanity all through. It is an engrossing first effort in what is going to be a quintet on the Moghuls.
An account of a Muslim king, not so much as a political figure, but as a man whose interests went beyond the usual.
EMPIRE OF THE MOGHUL — Raiders from the North: Alex Rutherford; Hachette India, 612/614 (6th Floor), Time Tower, M.G.Road, Sector 28, Gurgaon-122001. Rs. 495.