Though a fearless warrior, Humayun is a dreamer of sorts, preferring to watch the stars instead of court activities. He finds himself thrust with a legacy that he feels he needed more time to get adjusted to. Babur’s death had left the fledgling empire vulnerable with enemies closing from all sides. But as the new emperor soon finds out, its the enemy within that is much more lethal.
Babur had left the whole of the new empire in the hands of his eldest and favourite son. This left a lot of hearts broken, but the one who is most affected is Kamran, his half brother who is only a few months younger. Askar and Hindal were to follow Kamran’s lead, though Hindal, the youngest, was always a reluctant conspirator.
So begins this book, which, as is readily apparent, is much well written than its predecessor, Raiders from the North – about Babur. The action is more gripping and seems less like a tract of historical text. The characters have much more flesh. Of course some of the old characters from the previous book make an appearance – especially Khanzada, the pillar for Humayun in the most difficult of times.
And as you progress, you realize that the old cliché – truth is stranger than fiction is well, so true. The story of intrigues, love affairs, battles, betrayals, the incredible turning around of fates and an end that any fiction writer would have been proud to have come up with. The book is so packed with so many twists and turns that you literally have to keep reminding yourself that this is in fact historical fact (of course with liberties taken from a writers point of view).
Humayun’s dreamlike character, his addiction to opium (encouraged by the scheming mother of Kamran), his haywire schemes of running his court according to the stars, the titanic clashes with Sher Shah Suri, Humayun’s miraculous escapes, his fleeing across half of northern subcontinent seeking refuge (at one time reduced to a handful of men in rags pursued by armies), his reversal of fortune, the constant betrayals by his brothers, the constant battles when one battle has been won, his love of the women in his life – especially Hamida (the mother of Akbar).
All these read almost like a potboiler. I mean, for it being a novel based on history, I found myself on the edge of my seat many times as the book was polished off in a couple of readings.
For me, as with the first book, the appeal is in knowing more about the Mughals in a way that Wikipedia can never teach me – learning while being entertained. It is strange how little we really know of our history. As we witness the early Mughals struggling to reserve a vision that Babur had nurtured, we almost see modern India in the making as one of the greatest empires in modern world begins to take foothold. You get to know more about other characters – like Sher Shah, who are dismissed in a couple of sentences in most school books.
Importantly, it brings into focus a Mughal who is so often overlooked in history with almost everyone else hogging the limelight, even though it was him who actually set a firm foundation in India for the Mughals. Humayun was emperor in actuality for a very short time and died almost in a bizarre tragedy when he tripped and fell down stairs after he had secured his kingdom after long gruelling years. We see a man who in more peaceful times would have become more of a poet rather than a king. His acts of benevolence especially in forgiving his brothers again and again is a feature that is almost impossible to imagine in his times when kings eliminated rivals at the first chance. Humayun comes as irritable personality possessing all faults but more than compensating for them with his more generous qualities.
All in all, a gripping and enjoyable read. And hopefully the writing would keep on improving with the next one – on Akbar. Cant wait for that one…