Book Review by Gargi Vachaknavi
Title: Dara Shukoh, The Man Who Would Be King
Author: Avik Chanda
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019
Dara Shukoh (1615-1659), the beloved and righteous son of Shah Jahan — is he indeed shown to be what Arun Shourie said of the book: “The Book we need — about the man we need” on the front cover?
Despite wading through more than three hundred pages of the book, Arun Shourie’s statement seemed unfounded! Author Avik Chanda shows otherwise in this historic narrative. And why would he do that? Because, he says he is tired of stereotypes, he has tried to unveil ‘the truth’.
Avik Chanda dons multiple hats. He is a consultant who has two collections of poetry in Bengali, a novel, Anchor (Harper Collins, 2015) and his acclaimed business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption (Harper Collins, 2017), co-authored with Suman Ghose and featured in 2018 in Amazon India’s Best Reads, under ‘Business, Strategy and Management’. This year Dara Shukoh, The Man Who would Be King has also made it to second position in the Asian Age’s non-fiction bestseller list.
This book is different. The narrative weaves minutely through history in detail. Except at the end, the sources are not discussed. Though it is evident that a lot of research has gone into the narrative, only the author’s voice is heard. However, Chanda does bring in voices of writers from the Mughal era. For instance, Chanda gives two renditions of Dara Shukoh’s final words.
Manucci, an Italian in the Mughal’s pay, tells us: “Finding himself unable to obtain his wish, he began in loud and heart-rending tones to say these words: ‘Muhammad mara mi-kushad, ibn-ullah mara jaan mi-bakhshad’, that is to say – Muhammad kills me, and the Son of God gives me life.” Whereas the biographer of Dara’s brother, Shuja, gives a different story: “This sinner has heard that after the work was finished, the head of Prince Dara Shukoh repeated aloud the kalima- i-shahadat (Muslim confession of Faith), which was heard by people.”
The whole book can be read as an expose on Dara Shukoh. It rips apart the statement recently made by RSS joint general secretary Dr Krishna Gopal: “If one can understand India’s legacy, the person can understand Dara Shukoh… India has never allowed divisive thoughts… we have no word for exclusiveness in Indic languages because we believe in inclusiveness… Dara, through his research found that there can be a synergy between his faith and Hinduism, which Aurangzeb saw as a threat…”.
What really happened? Was Aurangzeb as intolerant and cruel as conventional historians say? Chanda has traversed through history to try and give an honest telling.
Dara is shown to live in a world apart from the men who helped run the country. He is depicted as an intellectual effete who was contemptuous of the nobility and the ruling gentry, resorting instead to the company of mystics and magicians. Even during a campaign, we are told: “Magicians and occultists continued to pour into Dara’s camp. First, a number of gurus from the Deccan approached his camp, promising to construct for the Prince a wondrous and fearful machine, capable of flying through the air, carrying two-three soldiers armed with hand grenades. All that the sadhus asked was forty rupees per diem, plus expenses. The proposal was approved forthwith by Dara. Then a yogi appeared, with a full entourage of forty disciples. Through a special prayer, he would bring the whole of the enemy garrison into submission, within a maximum period of twenty days. Having collected his per diem of hundred rupees, plus allowance for expenses, the yogi and his retinue retired to a secluded spot. They were never seen again.”
Sympathy is whipped up for young ‘Aurangzib’, spelt with an ‘i’ instead of the conventional ‘e’ because we are told in the acknowledgements, “Sunil Sharma (an academic from Boston) …not only reviewed the entire manuscript, but painstakingly corrected the errata in Persian transliterations – lyrical phrases, locations and names – right down to the most obvious one: it’s Aurangzib, not Aurangzeb.” Though at the end, reading about Aurangzib’s cruelty, one feels sorry for Dara and his father, Shah Jahan. Cruelty towards Aurangzib was at an emotional and social level but his ruthless revenge coloured with blind anger, hate and violence makes one shudder. The cruelty exhibited within the royal family is such that like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, one feels that at some point most of the Mughal progeny should have screamed: “The horror! The horror!”
The book starts with Jehangir and Prince Khurram, the young prince who became an emperor — Shah Jahan. The childhood of the youngsters borne by Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal is brought to perspective. There is little of direct speech but there are poetic prose descriptions in the book which takes away dryness from the factual telling. The starting could well be a story — painting a word picture of the landscape —
“Ajmer, where this story begins, has long had its place in the sun.
At first, this was just another tract of land, clumps of bramble and briar interspersed with unexpected natural clearings in the flat valley. Millennia of harsh summers had parched the soil to the texture of desiccated tree-bark, chipped and cracked. There were no lakes or temples. Here and there, boulders, bleached white by the sun, shone upright like shrines from some ancient civilization. To the west, the Aravalli hills formed a phalanx of shields against the Thar Desert. A dust-track through the hills took the occasional lonely traveller to the pilgrimage town of Pushkar, with its famous lake, its banks hallowed with temples. The land brooded and waited. Then, early in the twelfth century, king Ajaymeru of the Chauhan clan chose this place as the capital of his incipient but expanding dominions, and Ajmer came to be named after him.”
One has to read on to arrive at the end and heave a sigh not just at having completed a very long narrative but also because we are left wondering if the cruelty and intolerance exhibited by Aurangzib is not a comment on what we are seeing and experiencing in the present day world? Can intolerance, anger and hate justify cruelty and blood curling violence?
Perhaps, the book is meant to make readers think and rethink for the future…
Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.
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