The emperor of oleander blossoms
(From The Hindu, by Parvati Sharma. Link to the complete article given below)
The Mughals have garnered many adjectives over the centuries. Once, when the world looked in awe at the power and wealth of Hindustan, they were simply ‘Great’. More recently, as Hindustan locks itself in a manic tussle with its past, they are ‘foreign’ or ‘invaders’, often both. Perhaps it’s time for a calming epithet: the Mughals were, without question, literary.
The first of them, Babur, is known for defeating Ibrahim Lodi in Panipat, but almost equally renowned for his autobiography. It’s not that kings hadn’t written before. Julius Caesar was composing accounts of his Gallic campaigns in 1 BC. The earliest autobiography — an account of a person’s life, not a record of events — was St. Augustine’s Confessions, written circa 400 AD. Babur, living a millennium later and a world away, invented the form for himself with Baburnama, the first personal memoir in Islamic literature. And he did it with flair — “both a Caesar and a Cervantes”, as Amitav Ghosh has described him — writing with lucid ease, whether of the pangs of his first love or his battle strategies. (The first autobiography in an Indian language, incidentally, may be Ardhakathanak (‘Half Life’) by Banarasidas, a Jain merchant who wrote in Braj Bhasha, and in verse, in the 17th century.)
The urge to write
In the centuries after Panipat, the Mughal empire grew into a global superpower, then shrunk to a wretched speck. The last Mughal ruled little besides the Red Fort, but he did preside over an efflorescence of Urdu poetry: Ghalib, Momin and Zauq shone bright in his court, and Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ was no mean poet himself. Imprisoned and exiled after the Uprising of 1857, the frail emperor would write Na wo taj hai na wo takht hai, na wo shah hai na dayar hai (‘No crown remains no throne remains, neither ruler nor realm remains’). The urge to write, however, that remained: Bahadur Shah is said to have etched his verses on the walls of his prison, with charcoal, when he was denied paper and pen.
Babur may not have been entirely displeased. In a letter to his son, Humayun, Babur offers equally urgent advice on how to rule and how to write. The unfortunate Humayun is ticked off on both counts: his desire for solitude is “a fatal flaw in kingship”, and his prose is convoluted. “Who has ever heard of prose designed to be an enigma?” writes Babur, exasperated. Humayun must write, instead, “with uncomplicated, clear, and plain words”.