Showing posts with label Empire of the Moghul. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Empire of the Moghul. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book review: Brothers at War (Empire of the Moghul, Book II)

(Published in the Business Standard, March 2010. I met and liked Michael and Diana Preston, co-authors of the Empire of the Moghul series, but as is apparent, I wasn't sold on the second volume. The Prestons have been travelling to India for over 30 years, and know their Mughals--but Humayun didn't come to life for me. Not that this is going to dent their impressive Indian sales, and both of them seem so enthusiastic about the Jahangir book, where Mehr-un-Nissa takes over the story, and the Akbar book, that I'm willing to stay with the series a while longer.
Loved Michael's story about travelling to Iran just after the Rushdie fatwa with a copy of the Baburnama. Just before he reached, he realised it had a foreword by Salman Rushdie, so he ripped out those pages; then searched the book frantically for more Rushdie mentions, and finally made Teheran airport with a bowdlerised Baburnama, title pages, foreword, back cover missing. After all that effort, Iran Customs showed no interest in the book.)

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War

Alex Rutherford,

Hachette, Rs 495, 436 pages

Edo Steinberg is an unsung, unpublished genius whose claim to fame rests on this contribution to the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest:

“Our tale takes place one century before the reign of Alboin, the Lombard king who would one day conquer most of Italy and who would end up being murdered by his own wife (quite rightfully, I'd say, since Alboin made a drinking cup out of her daddy's skull and forced her to drink from it), when our little Sonnebert was seven years old.”

Steinberg was one of the 2008 winners in the Historical Fiction category, and this entry sums up the pitfalls of trying to write in the epic vein. It’s tempting to adopt a sonorous style to fit the period, to introduce too much information too fast, and to try to sneak in a winsome minor character, usually of dubious value.

Contrast this with the quiet opening paragraph of Brothers at War, by Alex Rutherford: “The wind was chill. If Humayun closed his eyes he could almost imagine himself back among the pastures and mountains of the Kabul of his boyhood, rather than here on the battlements of Agra. But the short winter was ending. In a few weeks the plains of Hindustan would burn with heat and dust.”

In just two books, part of the grandly ambitious Empire of the Moghul series, the husband-and-wife team that make up the pseudonymous “Alex Rutherford” have made their mark on historical fiction in India. Diana and Michael Preston are both civil servants and enthusiastic travelers, and what drives Empire of the Moghul is their passion for the bloody lives and times of the emperors, from Babur to Aurangzeb. The first book, Raiders from the North, drew heavily from Babur’s writings to create a portrait of a young, ambitious king, exiled several times over in his fierce quest for a kingdom of his own; Brothers at War takes us into the far more internal struggles of Humayun.

In their account, Humayun emerges as a man of the senses, beguiled and betrayed by his appetites, embracing opium as passionately as he embraces the women of his harem. His virtues are also his weaknesses: the compassion and forgiveness he shows his warring brothers as they plot against him will drive him into exile for years. As with the first book in the series, it’s the Prestons’ attention to detail and their intimate knowledge of the workings of the Mughal empire that makes this a satisfying, meaty read. They’re great on the battle sequences, and when they offer details such as the astrological carpet Humayun has woven when his opium-fuddled mind wants the court to be governed by the planets, they bring the period alive.

But the really great historical novels, like really great literary novels, make their mark by creating unforgettable characters. Hillary Mantel did this in Wolf Hall by bringing Thomas Cromwell—the weaver’s brat who rose to become the king’s counselor—to life against the bloody, brutal background of Tudor England. George RR Martin, with a cast of fictional characters in an imaginary landscape in the Song of Ice and Fire, pulls off an awesome feat when he makes you believe in a country where the last of the dragons still terrorise the skies and direwolves roam an increasingly bitter winter landscape. He does this by making his protagonists—the young boy-king, Rob, the diabolically shrewd and kind dwarf Tyrion Lannister—as real as though they inhabited the pages of a history textbook.

The Prestons do their best, lacing Humayun’s struggle to reach, and hold, the throne of Hindustan with internal monologues: “An even deeper melancholy took hold of Humayun—not only grief at Maham’s death but a sense that many of the certainties of his youth were crumbling. All his life he’d been a pampered prince, brought up to expect great things as of right, confident of his place in the world. Never before had he felt so insignificant, so vulnerable to the buffeting of others’ actions.”

This tiny section encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the Rutherford/ Preston approach. They manage, successfully, to avoid the kind of bombast and clichés that infest what might be called the school of the hysterical novel. But if these first two books are any indication, Empire of the Moghul will remain a satisfactory, page-turning read, never reaching the heights of the really great historical novels. As with Babur, Humayun in these pages emerges as slightly more interesting than he does from the history textbooks—but they remain flat characters.

One way around this for writers like Philippa Gregory has been to focus the action on minor characters, letting us see emperors and empire through the eyes of a footsoldier, or a skeptical vizier, or a lady of the harem. The trick, with this series, is to treat a historical character the way you would treat an imagined character, to reimagine the emperors of India. For all the virtues of this series, perhaps the Prestons will remain better historians than novelists.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Book review: Empire of the Moghul

(Published in the Business Standard, September 3, 2009)

Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North
Alex Rutherford
Hachette, Rs 495, 434 pages

In a classic essay on Babur, Amitav Ghosh wonders: “What made him pen this immense book [the Baburnama] and how on earth did he find the time? Between the moment when he gained his first kingdom at the age of 12 and his death 35 years later, there seems scarcely to have been a quiet day in Babur’s life. His first kingdom was the only one he didn’t have to risk his life for: he inherited it from his father, a scion of a dynasty that was far richer in aspiring rulers than in thrones.”

In the course of his life, Babur won, lost and consolidated kingdoms, struggled in his early twenties with exile; as a young emperor, battled homesickness as he reviewed his conquests in India; and courtesy his unusually candid autobiography, revealed more of himself than elaborate court records reveal of his Mughal successors. All of this makes him the instinctive choice for the ambitious historical novelist, and with a planned cycle of five novels spanning the Mughal empire in the Empire of the Moghul series, Alex Rutherford is nothing if not ambitious.

Rutherford reveals little of his identity, beyond the fact that he lives in London, but in an afterword, his passion for history comes through: “I’ve visited nearly all the places important to Babur’s story. His ancestral kingdom of Ferghana…. is still a place of apple, almond and apricot orchards, with beds of juicy melons the size of footballs. I’ve slept in [the herdsmens’] conical felt tents, eaten their root vegetables, mutton and buttered rice, which would have been so familiar to Babur, and drunk the fermented mare’s milk that warmed him.” This is an almost familiar voice, combining a journalist’s curiosity with the trained or serious amateur historian’s eye for detail, and it promises much for the series.

Raiders From the North begins with the 12-year-old Babur witnessing the death of his father, Umair-Shaikh, killed in the collapse of his dovecote as the doves flutter “in the air like snowflakes” above the royal corpse. Babur’s adolescence is a tricky period for a novelist to cover; deprived of the intense, honest and almost chatty voice that informs the pages of the Baburnama, Rutherford must fall back on invention, and he struggles just a bit as the young boy-king attempts to handle intrigue, wicked viziers and the ambitions of his uncles. But Rutherford establishes much in the first few chapters, as Babur dons his father’s sword, Alamgir, but not the armour (“still too wide for him”) and prepares to claim one kingdom and hold on to another. He sets out the young king’s ambition, his fierce allegiance to the Timurid line, the deep but strong bonds between him, his sister Khanzada, his mother and his grandmother, Esan Dawlat, descended from Genghis Khan’s line.

At sixteen, Babur had attacked, won and lost Samarkand—and lost his own kingdom, Ferghana. At nineteen, he regained Samarkand, only to lose it again to Shaibani Khan. At twenty-two, he had captured Kabul; at 29, after briefly conquering Herat and being hailed as a saviour in Bukhara, Babur once again held—and once again lost—Samarkand. This final loss obliged him to turn his attention elsewhere; the prince without a kingdom found his way to India, and by the time of his death at 47, he had defeated the Lodis, demanded the allegiance of many of the Rajputs, and was emperor of India.

To cover this territory, Rutherford must use his licence to fictionalise, allowing us to see Babur through the eyes of Wazir Khan, Baisanghar and a market boy called Baburi. Through Wazir Khan, his father’s trusted lieutenant, we see Babur as a mentor would see him; through Baisanghar, commander of Babur’s army, we see the emperor as his soldiers would see him, and through the heavily fictionalised character of Baburi, we see Babur as a man caught between the driving force of his ambition and the constant presence of disillusionment. The pace is fast, and Rutherford carries off the battle scenes with élan, while his understanding of the landscape brings Babur’s story to life. The dialogue, so often the heart and the Achilles heel of historical novels, flows well but can sometimes retreat into stilted High Speech.

But while Rutherford doesn’t—yet—have the soaring imagination and absolute precision of a George R R Martin, or the finesse and depth of a Philippa Gregory, Raiders From the North deserves its position on the Indian bestseller charts. In a country saturated and steeped in history, we have so few good popular historical novels. We could debate the use of “Moghul” over “Mughal”—“Moghul” carries the faintly imperial hangover of out-of-date colonial textbooks—and occasionally question whether the characters are richly enough drawn.

Despite these quibbles, Raiders From the North is an excellent opening shot, miles better than the average page-turner. Whoever Alex Rutherford might be, he’s set the bar high for his next four novels—and this reviewer, for one, looks forward to the rest of the quintet.
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