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Updated: September 4, 2010 17:43 IST

Mirrors to history

JAI ARJUN SINGH
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Outsiders' perspectives make for interesting contrasts...

The literary sub-genre known as the alternate history is built on the tantalising question “What if a single important event had not taken place, or had occurred in another way?” At its best, imaginative writing in this vein can show how whimsical the path of history is, and that many of the things we take for granted – such as moral codes, ideas about religion, gender, economic policy or personal liberty – could, but for a single flip of the coin, have turned out differently.

Sudhir Kakar's The Crimson Throne doesn't quite belong to this genre, but its effect depends on its raising of such questions. Set during the Mughal Empire in the mid-17th century, this book centres on the war of succession between the two sons of the aged Emperor Shah Jahan: the broad-minded Dara Shikoh, known for his interest in the commingling of various religious traditions, and the fundamentalist Aurangzeb, concerned mainly with promoting Islam as the “one true faith”. Dara is the heir apparent and some believe he has the potential to be the greatest Mughal emperor since his great-grandfather Akbar, but those of us familiar with the period know what really happened: the prince was overthrown and executed by his younger brother, who went on to become one of the dynasty's longest-lasting rulers.

Techniques

This key period has been chronicled many times before, but Kakar's innovation is to use the contrasting perspectives of two foreign narrators – the Italian Niccolao Manucci and the Frenchman Francois Bernier, both of whom were real-life figures. The low-born Manucci travels from Venice to Goa, having heard marvellous tales about houses made of gold and silver, and though he is soon disabused of these notions, the new country casts its spell on him; eventually he finds employment as a physician in Prince Dara's court, despite not even having studied medicine in Italy. Bernier, on the other hand, arrives with more scholarly ambitions – and a more pompous bearing – and manages to maintain a largely detached attitude towards India and its people, although he becomes close to Shah Jahan's foreign minister Danishmand Khan.

Kakar's writing style is dry and functional – he works within his limitations and doesn't try to create distinct voices for the two narrators, letting the story take centre-stage. The alternating first-person accounts of Manucci and Bernier help us make sense of their biases and fealties. For instance, Bernier's contempt for the Hindus – or the “idolaters” – is obvious from early on. A product of the European Enlightenment but also moored in the certainties of his own religion, he lacks the ability or the will to appreciate a pliable, open-ended faith that worships hundreds of different Gods, “both divine and demonic, many of them no more than gargoyles”, and where every belief and every law seems to have its opposite. Simultaneously he develops a grudging respect for the followers of Islam and comes to admire Aurangzeb's single-minded zeal.

Manucci, though less scholarly, is in some ways the wiser man, more willing to absorb different ways of thinking, and he soon begins to hero-worship Dara. This means that through the course of the book, we get opposing views of the two princes. Is Dara the last great Mughal cut down on the verge of a glorious reign, or an indolent dreamer who would never have made a good statesman anyway, or a poseur who carefully cultivated the image of an exemplary prince? Is Aurangzeb a mean-minded hypocrite by nature or does he merely do everything it takes to achieve what he believes to be his life's duty? What do Danishmand Khan's recollections of their boyhood – Dara cheerful and demonstrative, Aurangzeb tight-lipped and calculating – really reveal about the men they have grown up to become?

Readers' roles

All these questions flow beneath the surface of the book, and because neither Manucci nor Bernier is an “objective” narrator, we are continually forced to think about how history comes to be interpreted and written.

The contemporary relevance of this story – with its conflict between rigid and fluid interpretations of Islam – is obvious, but The Crimson Throne works at a more intimate level too, providing an outsider's view of a place and period, complete with observations on social mores, the mundane details of warfare, the turbulent equation between the Mughals and the Rajputs and the equally thorny relationships within royal families where treachery and murder are commonplace. It's also a reminder that sweeping events are set in motions by the personal idiosyncrasies of men who behave like Gods. Which is why, even though Dara Shikoh is the object of our sympathy for much of the narrative, by the end it becomes possible to reflect that perhaps things might not have been too different even if he had become king. After all, power of the sort bestowed on a Mughal emperor can corrupt anyone, even a dreamy-eyed prince with an interest in Sufism.

The Crimson Throne; Sudhir Kakar; Penguin/Viking; Rs. 450

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