In the summer of our discontent about the changing of a road name, Aurangzeb’s restless spirit has been awakened. In his splendidly evoked account of the last great Mughal’s rise to power, Murad Ali Baig describes how, for all his calculating brilliance in extending the reach of his empire, Aurangzeb died an embittered man. As he writes in the epilogue describing the ban on music, the one edict of Aurangzeb’s that every schoolchild remembers: “His disapproval of music caused the musicians in his capital to try and mock his edicts by taking out large funeral processions of their instruments. But Aurangzeb was not moved when he was told about it. He had simply said, ‘Make sure that the grave is deep.’”
Aurangzeb was consigned to a dreary grave in a forsaken part of the Deccan where Shah Jahan had sent him and where he spent the best part of his life. As events were to prove, neither the place nor the grave were remote enough to contain him. If Aurangzeb’s skills as a keen tactician and brilliant commander made him a man of destiny who would rule “one of the richest and largest empires of all times”, his personal traits as a religious bigot were to corrode his humanity.
Was it because there was always the image of Dara Shikoh, the philosopher prince and eldest son of Shah Jahan, to act as a shining foil to Aurangzeb’s austere, even rigid, personal style? Murad Ali Baig raises the sibling rivalry between the sons of Shah Jahan to epic heights in this new rendering of the state of the nation in 17th century Mughal-dominated India. It’s his belief that “Aurangzeb’s bigotry was to make the Indian continent the epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism but paradoxically it also helped shape a much more strident new Hindu identity. The conflict between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh was a major turning point in the history of India.”
In recreating this Manichaean world of darkness and light, Ali Baig resembles the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf. In his The Gardens of Light, which is woven around the figure of the prophet Mani in 3rd century Persia, Maalouf suggests that there is a space for beauty, light and the need for plurality of beliefs in a monotheistic, clergy-dominated world. In Mani’s trial for the beliefs he held, and in those of others—the Dara Shikohs, the Thomas Beckets, maybe in our lifetimes the Pandit Nehrus—who have taken a stand against the rigid theology through the ages, authors like Baig and Maalouf remind us of those medieval troubadours who sing of heroes who are bound to fail. It’s an ode to failure.
Never mind. In between the wars of attrition that he describes, Murad Ali Baig recreates the marvellous splendors of the Mughal court through the eyes of Mubarak Ali, a eunuch with the ability to be everywhere at the same time.
Like Yashim the Eunuch of Jason Goodwin’s recreation of 19th century Istanbul and his amours in the harems of the Topkapi, Mubarak Ali’s escapades make light work of his creator’s more serious preoccupations.