Friday, November 5, 2010

Oh Brother!

Book: Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War
Author: Alex Rutherford
Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 436
Price: Rs 495
Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, November 08, 2010 at 01:16:46 PM

After his epic tribute to Babur in the first book of the Empire of the Moghul series, Alex Rutherford comes up with another enthralling piece of historical fiction on Humayun, the second Moghul Emperor.

Like his father, little remains Humayun, other than the architectural gem of his tomb at Nizamuddin East in Delhi that was a precursor to the Taj Mahal. In fact, his bitter rival Sher Shah Suri (1486 - May 22, 1545) left more than just a mark as emperor and administrator, by building roads including the Grand Trunk Road that stretches 2,500 km from Landi Kotal, the highest point on the Khyber Pass in Pakistan across north India to Sonargaon in the Narayanganj District of Bangladesh and reviving the ancient city of Patna.

In Brothers at War, Rutherford tries to thread together pieces of Humayun's life as described by his half-sister Gulbadan in Humayunnama, his attendant Jauhar's records Tadhkirat al-Waqiat and Abul Fazl's famed Akbarnama. Having come to thrown after Babur's sudden death only five years after he had conquered Hindustan, Humayan starts off as a reluctant ruler, more familiar with the sun and stars than his courtiers and matters of the world. He finds solace in opium, wine and the pleasures of the haram (harem), while his half-brothers Kamran and Askari connive to snatch his throne. A great warrior himself, Humayun often fails as a strategist in battle and ends up losing his kingdom to Sher Shah and being driven to the borders of Baluchistan. From there, he attempts to regroup and like his father, makes his way through the mountains to conquer Kandahar then Kabul and finally, Delhi.

The book traces the transformation of Humayun from a brave warrior who chooses reconciliation to punishment only to be tricked by Kamran and Askari again and again to a man who chooses to lose a loyal brother to win the girl he loves, to a desperate father determined to get his son Akbar back from Kamran's clutches and finally a man who conquers all his lost lands to once again become the Emperor of India and secure his dynasty's destiny.

Though flawed, Humayun comes across as a man of honour. He keeps his promises while the others fail to keep theirs. He decides to keep aside the ancient Mongol code of takhtya ya takhta (throne or coffin) to fulfill the promise he made to his father to do nothing against his brothers however much they might have deserved it. At the risk of his courtiers baulking at his eccentricity, he even makes a humble water-carrier the Emperor of Hindustan for a day for saving his life during his first battle with Sher Shah.

 Rutherford highlights the stark similarities between the lives of Babur and Humayun. "Like his father, he had known youthful triumph and then suffered great reverses which had tested his resolve. Persian support and religious compromises it had demanded proved of less assistance to both than they had hoped. Like Babur, he had spent far more time in Kabul than he'd intended before seizing Hindustan."

While the book is suitably titled Brothers at War, it is not only about men and valour but also about the women of the harem. Rutherford describes the scheming Gulrukh who pushed Humayun towards opium-addiction to secure her son Kamran's destiny, the courageous Hamida who travelled with her husband on perilous journeys through the deserts of Rajasthan and Iran and the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush and Khanzada who ticked off Humayun for his excesses and became his voice of reason when he could not find his own. Had it not been for the steely resolve of Hamida, Khanzada and Gulbadan, Humayun would have had little chance of enduring the many failures he had.

Set in an age of magnificent savagery, Brothers at War is a tale of true heroism, faith and glory. Powerful, thought-provoking and emotional, it’s not a book you want to miss!

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