Book Review: Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb by Shazi Zaman

By Najmul Hoda


Title: Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb

Author: Shazi Zaman

Publisher: Rajkamal Publications

Pages: 368

Price: Rs 799

To buy

Akbar in the Time of Aurangzeb is arguably the most readable and riveting book written on Akbar. History, biography or historical novel — call it what you may, Shazi Zaman has pulled a major tour de force. This is way better than what the Dalrymples and Rutherfords of the Indian historical fiction industry keep churning out. It has little exotica. Not much trivia. Hard historical facts. Culled from the primary sources, and strung together to make a seamless narrative with minimum speculation and intervention from the author. He lets the historical texts speak. And they speak loud and eloquent.
It’s not about empire building, wars, conquests and administration. Not much. Not directly. If anything—and if the word can be retrospectively used—it’s about nation-building.

It’s about Akbar, the thinker. The seeker, not the believer. The restless contemplator yearning for the resolution of myriad contradictions whirling in his mind. The free-thinker whose mind was free from the shackles of inherited wisdom and certitudes. The man who had the audacity, eagerness and enterprise to go beyond the limits set by his time, place, tradition and culture.

He never rejected Islam. He was devout. Deep. Spiritual. Mystical. Sufi. He delved deep into the meanings of both the precepts and the practices. Precepts kept him tethered. Practices made him break loose. Particularly the shenanigans of the religious establishment, most visibly personified in the unscrupulous and overweening arrogance of Shaikh Abdun Nabi who had the temerity to hit the adolescent emperor with a stick for something as innocuous as wearing saffron during the basant festival.

His intuitive insights were unparalleled. His was the most beautiful mind of his age. But his intellectual rigour and sophistication was no less. His nights were devoted to study and meditation. He had dyslexia. So, he couldn’t read or write. But, God compensated for this handicap with the gift of genius. He left 24,000 books in his personal library. He must have “read” almost all of them. Many of them many times over. He was “read-to” by many readers with whom he would discuss, dwell and uncover the layers of the text. His enlightened mind saw truth everywhere. In all religions. He valourised them by organising open debates on equal footing for everyone. He ultimately found that no religion was superior to another. And so, he stuck to the religion of his birth. But in his own way, more in a philosophical and mystical sense than in the observance of external rituals. Monotheist, pantheist, monist, call him what you want. He tried to see the world as God would. He saw truth everywhere, found everyone equal. He couldn’t discriminate. So, he tried to bring about a General Conciliation amongst diverse and disparate elements — Sulh-e Kul. Spiritual Secularism. An ideological atmosphere that would not brook any discrimination on grounds of religion.

Akbar is more relevant today, in the Age of Aurangzeb, than ever. Akbar binds. Aurangzeb breaks. Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Without the pathos of tragedy. With the bathos of farce.

The reviewer is Deputy Inspector General of Police (Tamil Nadu). When away from the hustle and bustle of duty, he indulges in books that churn his soul.