There is a shortage of good historical novels about Indian history. All that we usually get are history books, which though well written, can never get you into the skin of the character, cant let you see their own world with your eyes.
For all those reasons, this is a welcome book, being first of a quintet about the greatest of the Mughal emperors. The Mughal empire was one of the greatest of the world and should be rightly the pride of India. However, whether due to political reasons or due to ignorance (I suspect both and one feeding the other), few of us have any intimate knowledge about the empire during which time India was truly a superpower and one of the richest in the world.
This first book is about Babur, who overcame extraordinary odds to lay the foundation for Mughals. Starting from the time when he is thrust into kingship at the age of 13 for the small kingdom of Ferghana, near Samarkand, we follow his journey as he see-saws between victory and defeat, gaining everything and losing it the next moment. We see his growing maturity as a leader of men and his instincts as a survivor.
We see the founder of the Mughal empire fighting for his existence as a guerrilla leader, fighting for scraps of good luck thrown at him, having to sacrifice his sister to an enemy so that he can live to fight another day. We see how he never lets go of a dream – to be worthy of being a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan and how he finally accomplishes it. You follow him as he crosses the Hindukush and into Kabul from where he dreams of Hindustan. You are witness to the First battle of Panipat and witness to Babur being crowned the emperor in Delhi.
The book is written in a linear, chronological narrative and is written simply, with one event following another. Though that made it easier to read (too easily, perhaps – the book finishing within a couple of hours), I found it to be somewhat short of drama. The twists and turns came as simply as the normal events. At the end of it, you feel that you just about missed knowing Babur, having gotten tantalisingly close. You don’t really get to be a part of his life, just a third person hovering around the battle, without being able to smell the blood and sweat. This is much unlike the “Book of Saladin” written by Tariq Ali, where you almost feel the pain of Saladin (one of my favourite characters from history)
Another shortcoming is that the book seemed shallow when you consider that Babur was an exceedingly complex man – destroyer of temples and yet secular, calling a jihad and yet contemptuous of mullahs. There are mentions of this complexity in the narrative (like destroying of temples to draw in Rana Sanga) but they come in short bursts and don’t really mesh with the character as such. So, character development is a bit of a problem. Babur seemed two-dimensional most of the times, floating like a leaf in the wind of fate.
So, even though the book is a commendable achievement if only for bringing focus on the neglected Mughals, for me, it falls short of being a great read, both from a historical point of view and from a immersive read point of view.
That said, I am still going to buy the next book of the series – if for nothing else, to know a little bit more about the empire that shaped much of our cultural (and architectural) psyche.