Thursday, August 20, 2015

Inside the Mind of a Tyrant

Book Review: Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul: Traitors in the Shadows
Having successfully completed a quintet of books skilfully chronicling the rise and fall of the Moghul Empire, Alex Rutherford is back with Traitors in the Shadows which examines the reign of Aurangzeb, one of the most contradictory and vilified figures in Indian history. Rutherford is on familiar terrain and his reverence for the historical material shines through in his narrative as he paints an enduring portrait of the tyrant who was not without redeeming qualities all though one clearly has to hunt for them with the help of a powerful microscope!
            Capable of unbelievable cruelty evinced by his imprisonment of his father and sons, the ruthless hunting and killing of his own brothers, his penchant for torture and careless imposition of the death penalty, the emperor was also just a man haunted by the fact that those in his line had always been forced to choose between Taktya Takhta – Throne or Coffin. Aurangzeb was a brave warrior and a brilliant strategist, possessed of a subtle and devious mind. But those fine qualities notwithstanding, he will always be remembered as a tyrant thanks to his intransigence in all matters regarding religious beliefs.
A devout Muslim, whose stern and extreme adherence to the strictures of his religion saw him undo all the hard work put in by his ancestors like Akbar to cultivate the bonds of brotherhood between those of all faiths by adopting a policy of religious intolerance. Aurangzeb banned the celebration of Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali, ordered the destruction of temples and re-imposed the dreaded Jizya – higher taxation for all non – Muslims in order to drive home his power over them. His actions were motivated by a misguided sense of political acuity as well and intended to make a strong statement against rebels like Shivaji and later, Sambhaji who were Hindus, the Jats, Rajputs and Sikhs, to discourage his other subjects from throwing in their lot with them.
The extremist policies forcibly implemented by Aurangzeb and the bad blood it engendered opened up a chasm between the various religious factions in India that has proved difficult to bridge to this very day. If his actions were hard on his subjects they were even harder on those closest to him like his long suffering sister Jahanara, his sons and closest, most trusted advisors like Wazim Khan who bore the brunt of the hardness of character that saw him snuff every threat to his power with a terrifying savagery reminiscent of equally bloodthirsty ancestors like Genghis Khan.
Rutherford has done a fair job by staying faithful to the material which is pure gold. The historical facts are juicy and the pace is crisp, making for a riveting read and yet it is hard to shake the feeling that something is missing. Despite all the factors, going for it a certain dryness creeps in which has the result that even when an orgy is being described, it is with so much blandness that it detracts from the succulence of the story.
While history itself is always fascinating, history textbooks are less so and this book has some of the more tedious attributes of the latter. It merely touches on the emotional core of its characters while shying away from plunging the reader into the very depths which can be mildly frustrating. That minor grouse aside, Empire of the Moghul is a triumph that brings to life one of the most glorious epochs in all of history and is definitely worth a read. 
This review originally appeared in the New Indian Express which you can read here.


Unknown said...

Hi. I was in school with your father. :) He posted about your book, and very curious I googled you to find your blog. I live in Delhi and Aurangzeb has been very much in people's minds here as you know. Lots of articles. TV talk. Much tweeting.
Earlier this year there was a wonderful exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi. Aurangzeb's armour and sword were among the exhibits. Gave me the goosebumps because he was suddenly so human.
I like to see things in context. Did you read this?
Good luck with your work. Ann Ninan

Anuja Chandramouli said...

Hi Ann,
Good to hear from an OL! As a matter of fact, I did read that article and was sorry that it turned up after I had reviewed the book. It would have totally put things in a different perspective for me.
Thanks so much for your wishes.
Take care!

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