Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blood against blood

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blood against blood
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War
By Alex Rutherford
Hachette India.
Pages 436. Rs 495.

LIKE the first volume of the quintet Empire of the Moghul, Alex Rutherford's Brothers at War also opens with the death of an emperor and the war of succession among the siblings. In December 1530, Babur's eldest son Humayun, the fortunate one, finds himself wearing the crown at the age of 22. The inexperienced prince not only had to deal with the rebellious Afghans, but also with his ambitious half-brothers and cousins. In the murky world of power and politics, no one could be trusted. Unable to rely on anyone, Humayun consults his trusted astrologer before deciding anything. But in spite of the favourable predictions, Humayun is defeated by the survivors of the Lodi regime. As if that were not enough, Sher Shah Suri frustrates all efforts of Humayun to consolidate an empire. Added to this is the treachery of his unscrupulous half-brother Kamran who goes to the extent of kidnapping Humayun's infant son, Akbar.

Rutherford very deftly recreates the life and times of the second Moghul Emperor who ruled present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India. He was forced into a 15-year long exile as a result of continual attacks by archrival Sher Shah Suri and his half-brother Kamran. It was during this period that Humayun's Persian wife, Hamida, gave birth to Akbar, who would himself be an emperor in the future. Not the one to give up, Humayun, with the help of Persian sympathisers, recovered most of the territories 15 years later. During his exile, he had remembered his father's words: "If you cannot defeat your enemy by force of arms, do not despair. Find other ways. A sharp, well-oiled double-bladed axe is a fine weapon but so is a finely honed mind that can find a subtler path to victory`85 ."

Like the first book, this one also reflects Rutherford's amazing talent for recreating history as fiction. Going through historical records and personal accounts, he manages to create well-rounded characters, breathtaking battle scenes, and exotic background. The author makes sure that research does not overshadow the narrative. The dialogue is natural, and the plot is gripping, although a little less griping than the first book, and that is because Babur led a lot more adventurous and risky life.

Rutherford's Humayun comes across as a humane character with normal human failings. He is kind, and pardons even his treacherous brother Kamran; he is a good warrior but does make elementary mistakes. Even during a military campaign, or in times of hardship, he finds time to make passionate love to wife Hamida. He is a man who keeps his word, even if the other person has not.

The writer pays good attention to secondary characters as well, like Khanzada, Humayun's aunt whom he consults and trusts; Salima, his favourite concubine; Jauhar, his attendant; Suleiman Mirza, general of cavalry; Sher Shah Suri and Kamran.

Every attention is paid to historical detail, making the plot and characters come to life.