They were two years that may have decided the fate of the Mughal empire, and by extension, that of India where it was the paramount power but did the events of 1658-59 when the sons of Shah Jahan fought a fratricidal war for the Peacock Throne begin from a rumour about their father’s health, or was it ambition getting unleashed?
It is an episode whose outcome – victory of a puritanical but determined Aurangzeb over a liberal but indecisive Dara Shikoh – and its implications have been endlessly debated and continue to excite heated discussions – specially in today’s era when quite a bit of history is being questioned.
Knowledge of the result however hasn’t stopped some fine novelists, from depicting it from various different angles, including Indu Sundaresan in “Shadow Princess” from their sister Jahanara’s viewpoint and psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s “The Crimson Throne” from the focus of foreign visitors to the Mughal court.
But, IAS officer-turned-author Srinivas Rao Adige, in his first novel, brings a totally new focus by presenting multiple points of view as the succession struggle begins like a high stake game, say chess, where the most capable (and unscrupulous) player adroitly manipulates people and situations to get an advantage, before the question devolves onto the real battlefield, where strength of numbers also needs to be bolstered by firmness of purpose.
And the author makes this evident from the very beginning where Dara Shikoh, conscious that his father is very ill and the royal hakim’s remedies are not working, dithers over Jahanara’s radical suggestion of employing a Hindu vaid. By the time he agrees, and the treatment begins, the situation has deteriorated more and rumours gaining ground. He also doesn’t know the news has leaked to an agent of his youngest brother Murad, and we follow the agent’s messengers despatched surreptitiously but post-haste to his master in Gujarat with the information.
Murad, seen carousing and whoring till he gets angered enough to kill his elderly minister – wished upon him by the imperial court, reacts to the news in his own impetous way, while rumours that his father has passed away and the news is being hidden make Shah Shuja, administering Bengal, abandon a cruel hunt and declare himself the emperor.
But the coolest reaction is by Aurangzeb in the Deccan, who takes no hasty steps but well-calibrated ones that not only ensure him useful allies but also allow him a free hand to secure a headstart without it being apparent and also to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses.
Adige thus quite acquaints us with the temperament, and motivations, of the principal players as well as the quality of their advisors, while bringing in some more viewpoints including of Jaswant Singh, commander of the imperial forces, and some doubts created in his mind after an unexpected visitor offers some gratuitous but hard-hitting advice as the story moves to its known, but still explosive finale.
An epilogue sees the eventual victor, at nearly the end of his life, wonder if all his struggle and actions had been worth it – but then who can foresee the mysterious workings of history?
Revolts to grab power, including those by ambitious sons against their fathers, and by passed-over siblings are not uncommon in monarchies and India was no exception. Unlike a common perception that these was confined to Islamic rulers, they can be found down the ages – Ajatashatru against his father Bimbisara, or Ashoka against brother Susima, but this one may have been the most significant – for India.
It is evident that while he led the Mughal empire to its largest territorial expanse – albeit temporarily, he also may have initiated its downward spiral with ceaseless wars, and some unwise policies to pursue in a multi-faith realm – but he has to be seen in his contemporary context, not through our current-day perceptions. This engrossing Mughal-era political thriller shows him as a no-holds barred and ideologically-committed politician, which might be closer to the mark – and why he must remain in history and memory!