A historical novel based on Emperor Babur

A historical novel based on Emperor Babur

Rutherford brings us the story of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India

Saleem Kidwai
September 18 , 2014
03 Min Read

Military conquerors don’t make ideal fodder for gripping historical novels. They allow for action but very little emotion. Occasionally someone like Mary Renault brings one alive. Her recreation of the last years of Alexander in The Persian Boy dazzles because of its imagination and restraint.


As a conqueror, Babur was not in the league of Alexander, Chengiz Khan or Timur. But there is enough drama here. At 12, he was king of a principality in Uzbekistan and longed to re-establish the Timurid rule in Samarkand. At 13, he conquered and lost Samarkand, the Timurid capital. He turned east only when he renounced that dream, and established Mughal rule in India at 29.


What should make Babur a novelist’s dream is the Baburnama, his memoirs — a charming, candid and descriptive book. There are large gaps, partially due to pages getting lost during Babur’s very eventful life, which spanned being thrice ruler of Samarkand to being a minor warlord and even an armed brigand. There is enough material there for a novel, even without much intervention; and with imagination, a marvel could be created.


Rutherfold has rightly claimed the liberty of a historical novelist to condense, combine and omit facts, to flesh out characters or create new ones by combining real ones. His narration of Babur’s military career is competent. He is more successful in the evoking of Babur’s grandmother, mother and sister. We know that he was close to all three and that he consulted his grandmother in important political matters. His sister he lost to Shaibani Khan, his Uzbek tormentor who not only drove Babur out of Samarkand but kept her. She eventually rejoined Babur in India. To hear them speak is what gives historical novels their appeal.


Authors have to edit for readability. However, some omissions jar because they seem motivated either by prejudice or by the novelist’s inability to deal with certain aspects of human nature. Homophobia, no matter what its form, is a critical handicap for a novelist who chooses to write about Babur. The omission of Babur’s description of the first time he felt the stirrings of love is staggering. Babur says he became completely besotted by a street boy called Baburi. He would lose his speech in his presence and he wandered around like a mad-man, reciting love poetry. Why would a novelist omit rather than capitalise on this? Obviously because Baburi was also male.


Clearly, the author understands the significance of his omission, because he elevates Baburi into the second most important character. In the tale, when Babur first set eyes on this broad shouldered, thin-waisted lad with indigo eyes, Baburi did menial work in the royal kitchen. Soon, he joined Babur’s army and became his closest confidante. They went riding, hunting and whoring together. They talked late into the night under the stars. Baburi ended up as his second-in-command at the Battle of Panipat.


Baburi lifts Babur’s spirits when he is depressed, brings him back to earth when his ambitions take flight. He shows signs of jealousy when Babur talks about his wife. He himself refuses to marry. They argue and they brawl. Baburi disappears after one such spat. They are reconciled years later after he returns from a stint in the Ottoman army and introduces Babur to gunpowder, something that was crucial to Babur’s subsequent success. Babur had recognised Baburi’s corpse from a ring that he gave Baburi; Babur had felt a part of him die then. In fact, Babur is buried next to Baburi.


Would any of this have conflicted with Babur’s own telling of the nature of the original attraction? Should dramatic invention conflict with genuine, documented emotion? Honouring Babur’s words would have increased the credibility of the relationship between the novel’s two main characters. The author’s coyness in acknowledging the possibility of a romantic relationship and insisting that they were ‘like blood-brothers’ is perhaps the main reason why this novel is dissatisfying. This book is the first part of a proposed quintet. One shudders at how much more will be shoved into the closet.

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