Aurangzeb: zealot or strategist?

Empire of the Moghul: Traitors in the Shadows by Alex Rutherford
Publisher: Headline Review Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Extent: 362 pages.
Price: Rs 599

This is the sixth in the Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford (the pen name of Diana and Michael Preston) , and for a reviewer newly come to the series,  that could have been a disadvantage. However, it is not, simply because Traitors in the Shadows stands alone as an adventure story set at a scorching pace, full of wars/ battles/ conflicts, political skullduggery, some intrigue, then more wars/ battles/ conflicts. And it just so happens that the protagonists are the sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, his bête noire Shivaji, then Shivaji`s son and heir Sambhaji, and last but certainly not the least, the Mughal emperor`s own ambitious sons.

It`s everything we learned in our history classes,  with much flesh, blood and fire breathed into it. Aurangzeb is Emperor of India, and has seated himself confidently on the fabled Peacock Throne,  but the crown sits uneasily on his head as he aspires to win back the affections of his beloved sister Jahanara,  who chose to stay with Shah Jahan, the father Aurangzeb has imprisoned in Agra. Shivaji is a very real thorn in his flesh; soon, Aurangzeb`s  growing sons all display the kind of ambition that one fosters in oneself but does not like to see in one`s sons! Adding to his frustrations is the onerous task of ruling a country of unbelievers who refuse to see the light and convert to Islam. And as he ages, the fact that he hunted down and killed his brothers, imprisoned his siblings, sons and daughters, all  begins to gnaw at his conscience. Indeed, it seems to be a hard life, the emperor`s life.

The book story gets off to a dramatic start, with Shivaji`s famous escape in a basket from under the eagle eye of the Emperor. Shivaji plays a brief role in this book but leaves a clear impression of a man of much brain and some brawn, and the ability to use both to his advantage.  One of Shivaji`s men remarks, ``He (Aurangzeb) calls us mountain rats but he`s the vermin. Rats or not, we`ve already bitten his hand and will do so again and again till we rid ourselves of him.``

The battles are savage carnages and Rutherford goes into excruciating detail. In fact, Traitors in the Shadows is basically just one account of battle after another. This can get a bit tiresome if the reader is looking for a more reflective  peek into this particular emperor`s psyche. The details of the Mughal court are set out in exacting detail and  Aurangzeb’s relationship with Jahanara is interesting, as indeed its fallout on his other loyal sibling, Roshanara.

Where Rutherford stumbles is in trying to give an emotional back-story to the emperor. We read of the father who never really loved him, preferring Dara Shikoh to Aurangzeb; Mumtaz Mahal, the mother he adored but lost early in life; his inability to understand that his rigid moral viewpoints are not ones that eneadear him to his family, courtiers or his people, but it all really doesn`t seem too convincing. At the end,  the author has the emperor repenting some of his more fell deeds and the reader wonders if that is a bit of history faithfully reported or if it is artistic license taken by the author.

The prose is workman prose, no frills, no flourishes and indeed, some readers may well feel, no magic too. The pace is brisk, and never flags for a minute; indeed, here too, sometimes one wishes it would slacken a bit. The major detailing, the filling of characters is all adept, and in direct counterpoint to the passionless style, the war reports are quite florid! Some of the torture scenes are hard to read (at least they were for this reviewer),  particularly Sambhaji`s harrowing ordeal before his drawn-out death.  By the end of the book, John Company has made its debut and is looking to grow in prominence through the emperor has not really got its full measure as yet.

Ultimately, Aurangzeb, the man who views everything through the trellis of Islam, (`as always, communion with his god, to him the one certainty in an uncertain world, brought solace.`) , the first Mughal emperor to apply his religion in his rule, the man who imposed the jizya or religious tax on his non-Muslim subjects,  emerges as a ruthless, not very likeable but definitely interesting man. I particularly liked this bit of information: he drank ice-cooled water from the Jumna poured into the drinking cup he carried with him everywhere. It was carved into a lotus flower from a piece of translucent white jade which would supposedly discolour instantly if poison were present. 

Even as the reader acknowledges and appreciates his political astuteness, this cold, aloof, distant man does not instill much awe or respect. We watch as he grows more and more isolated and we feel he deserves it, as he is reaping the harvest of a man who has killed and imprisoned most of his family.  A master strategist at times, Aurangzeb is nothing less than a zealot at other times.

If you notice, this reviewer deliberately uses` Mughal`  for the `Moghul` used in the book. While fully sympathetic to the fact that Rutherford is writing for a Western audience, I think as Indians we might as well stick to the right word. So, Mughal it is.

Aficionados of historical fiction will lap this up. Maybe.

Ad copywriter turned journalist turned writer Sheila Kumar is the author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications). Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies. She edits copy for a brace of technical magazines, writes a whole lot of travel articles,  and reviews books for a couple of national newspapers.

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