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.
“Gerard is the hero of a series of comic short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The hero, Etienne Gerard, is a Hussar in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Gerard’s most notable attribute is his vanity – he is utterly convinced that he is the bravest soldier, greatest swordsman, accomplished horseman and gallant lover in all France. Gerard is not entirely wrong since he displays notable bravery on many occasions, but his self-satisfaction undercuts this quite often. Obsessed with honour and glory, he is always ready with a stirring speech or a gallant remark to a lady.
Conan Doyle, in making his hero a vain, and often rather uncomprehending Frenchman, was able to satirize both the stereotypical English view of the French, and – by presenting them from Gerard’s baffled point of view – English manners and attitudes.”
– Taken from Wikipedia
I could not have found a better explanation for the book and the character therein that I just finished and enjoyed immensely (I thank Saurabh Singh for giving me the first book I ever read about Gerard – this is my re-reading of the books).
If you are fond of books laden with nice old world adventures (gallant adventures as Gerard would have said) where the hero comes through, no matter what the situation, you would like this book. On top of this, if you like your stories to have a touch of irony, a dash of satire and dollops of humour, you simply got to read the book (and the other in the series – the Adventures of Gerard). These will not leave you hee-hawing with laughter but will leave you feeling better than that – this book has the touch of humour that you can readily associate with Don Quixote. The man retelling these stories as an old man is so damn full of himself and yet feels he is being humble at times when he is at his height of boasting; but this quality instantly endears you to him as he takes you on his extraordinary adventures.
It is also a world of romance and of war, the era when whole nations mobilized to fight, yet Etienne Gerard makes both of them seem the same. The stories account for historical facts but these are no historical journals. The hero of the story is present in almost all the theatres of the Napoleonic wars and he always seems to play a significant part in it, atleast by his reckoning. His mannerism and his style of thinking is very catchy and soon you begin to feel that you would really like to talk to this Frenchman. What is most entertaining in the stories are his opinions and his proclamations, whether with reference to a beautiful woman, to the Emperor, to France, the British or to Hussars. All of them serve to bring up the stereotypical Frenchman but you don’t mind that because you fall in the love with Etienne Gerard before long and you like him just the way he is.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
– Thomas Grey "ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD"
“Because its there” – attributed to Mallory, the response to a question as to why he ‘bothers’’ (to risk his life to climb Everest)
That the book was about one of most romantic-tragic character in history who has always fascinated me – George Mallory, was one of the main reasons that I picked up the book. I have always enjoyed Archer’s short stories collection but not his longer novels, so this required a leap of faith of sorts…But the subject matter and the undoubted talents of the writer swung the balance.
And I have not regretted that decision. From the first page of the book, the book sweeps you into an era that was the last great eras of human exploration, an era that ended in man’s final conquest of nature, a victory of the frail human body over all the odds thrown against it. It was an era when explorers and adventurers were arguably as much a celebrity that movie stars, if not more at certain occasions. It was an age when both the North and South Poles fell, when man started to conquer the airspace. The age ended with the landing on the moon bringing to a close the era of heroic explorers and discoverers. It was also during this age when many of the highest mountains of the world were conquered. This book is about this final conquest. And what high mistress of the mountains is there other than Chomolungma (or as we know by the British given name – Mt Everest). When did Everest yield and to whom? to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, as we have been taught or did it yield to the intrepid George Mallory thirty years earlier, who when last seen before he disappeared in the mist near the summit, was a few hundred feet from the highest seat in the world?
The controversy has not been resolved yet, even though Mallory’s frozen body was found a few years ago by climbers. The evidence on his body threw open fresh controversies since the photo of his wife Ruth was not found on his body. He had promised Ruth that he would put her photo on the summit when he climbed it.
This book takes us on a fictionalized account of the life of the climber and offers an opinion on what really occurred in 1924 after Mallory and Irving (his climbing partner) disappeared from view.
The main bulk of the book is devoted to knowing Mallory as a man rather than a legend and in this I feel that in this regard, Archer is excellent unlike what many other reviewers feel. We come across a man who is liberal in his thoughts and open to criticism and alternate views. In many ways, he is a man ahead of his time – especially in regard to women empowerment. Remember that at this time women did not have the right to vote and their education was frowned upon. His indomitable attitude to everything (especially to anything that needed climbing!!) is also brought out well. His skills as a mountaineer was astounding and he was proclaimed a genius even in his lifetime…
The book dwells at length on the fairy tale romance between Mallory and Ruth, the woman he fell in love at first sight and to whom he remained faithful and completely in love till the end. It was a love story which make the stuff of legends. His impassioned letters to her starting with “My Dear Ruth” have become one of the most well known correspondences in history. His last letter to her was almost prophetic and makes for emotional reading.
To woo her, he risked arrest by climbing a national monument in Venice!!!. An illustration of the love between them comes across when Ruth gives up security to encourage Mallory to go on his last fateful climb even though he had decided to give up climbing to stay with her since he did not want to lose her. She understood that men like Mallory can only rest when they had conquered what beckons them. The exchange in this regard between Ruth and Robert Scott’s widow is poignant and one of the hallmarks of the book.
The book is ultimately about the fatal attraction between Mallory and Mt Everest. It was the final frontier for a mountaineer and Mallory was arguably the best man available to conquer the heights. But a combination of bad luck (WWI) and the prevalent ‘climbing ethics’ (called the amateur code – which included looking down on use of oxygen) prevented him from attempting the summit seriously until he was in his mid-thirties. So when he climbed his fateful climb, he knew very well that this was the last chance to imprint his name on history. He was also unlucky to not get George Finch, the only person he considered his rival, as his climbing partner due to the imperial frostiness (They did not want an Australian and a divorcee on top of a mountain which they considered theirs).
Of course we may never know what caused Mallory to never come back to safety and to Ruth and the book also leaves the question hanging though Archer does make him the first conqueror of the mountain.
The book is fast paced and covers all aspects of his life. And because you know what is going to happen in the end, the chronicle of his short life becomes even more evocative. You almost wish that he did c0nquer the mountain. But even if he didn’t, he set an example for all the men to follow – by his open minded attitude, his leadership qualities, his humanitarian approach to climbing (when he gave up an attempt on the top because of an injured partner when he could have gone on – a contrast to many modern climbers who forget this alpine spirit) and above all for his spirit of adventure…
One of my unforgettable reads…