I noticed that I am lagging miserably in my Goodreads challenge of reading 36 books this year (I guess I was too complacent about my reading speed). And it has been too long since I wrote about books, so this post is about two books that I completed in the last two weeks.
The first one is Raiders from the North, the first book of Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford (penname of Michael and Diana Preston). The book is based on the life of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. A convincing piece of historical fiction, it is adapted from Baburnama with precise details of dates and events. However, it is not just about history. Reminiscent of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s treatment of history, the authors take the liberty to introduce a few imaginary characters to capture the zeitgeist of medieval times.
More than Babur’s victories and defeats and power struggles with the external enemies, it is also about his internal conflict as he feels burdened by destiny. From childhood, he hears the tales of his glorious ancestors Timur and Genghis and sees his father wallowing in self-pity of having failed Timur. With the death of his father Umar Shaikh Mirza, Babur ascends the throne of Ferghana at twelve. Babur’s ambitions are fuelled by the astute Esan Dawlat, his maternal grandmother. She narrates the history of Genghis Khan and guides Babur in taking the right decisions even in the face of adversities. It is inspiring to see a lady of Esan Dawlat’s character in the medieval times, a shrewd judge of both politics of the times and human nature. Later on, Babur’s sister Khanzada takes up the role of Esan Dawlat as she guides Kamran in ruling Kabul while Babur and Humayun battle it out in the plains of Hindustan. It is interesting to see ladies of these times, who despite being severely limited in terms of freedom, are so resilient and strong in the face of adversities and so knowledgeable about the affairs of the state.
The setting of the story revolves around the quaint Ferghana and the glorious Samarkand in the beginning of the story and later shifts to the rugged, stony Hindukush mountains with dangerous crevices and ravines and arduous passes and the beautiful pomegranate gardens of Kabul and finally to the hot, dusty plains of Hindustan and Delhi with its magnificent structures of red sandstone. Babur has a strange yearning for Ferghana despite winning Samarkand, and later a longing for Samarkand. A sense of failure works within him throughout his life as he thinks wistfully of Samarkand, a city he failed to keep despite conquering. Despite conquering Hindustan, he never feels a sense of belonging to the place and wishes to be buried in the gardens of Kabul which he had laid. He tries to satiate his desires for Samarkand by beautifying Kabul. Babur’s descriptions of Hindustan are interesting, as India is shown from the eyes of a foreigner marvelling at its wonders. Things that we have taken for granted are suddenly shown in a different light. He misses pomegranates and melons of Kabul and yet is awed by the beauty of bright red tropical flowers blooming around. The heat of Hindustan distresses him, yet he stares with awe at the customs of the people here and tries to understand them. It shows both the cruel and humane side of Babur, kind and patient with men of courage while boiling with fury towards men who show the slightest signs of betrayal.
This book also enlightens about the workings of the mind of a ruler. Babur uses all kinds of strategies to motivate his soldiers and resorts to using religion when he needs to. He is a shrewd commander who knows how to rouse his men to war. The book reminded me how since ancient times, men of such calibre have driven fellow men to war by manipulating their emotions. Be it the famous conquerors of yesteryears or the wily politicians of today, all use prevailing sentiments to provoke people into action, who often follow up without thinking.
The second book is called The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, a Pakistani civil servant who worked in the remote areas of Baluchistan, Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He captures the essence of nomadic life of these remote heartlands through a series of nine short stories all linked by the character of Tor Baz, the falcon who wanders about, without a nest. The stories do not directly relate to the protagonist, but he is always there in the fringes of each story. It reminded me of Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which too follows a similar pattern.
The stories are more about the people of these areas, showing both the pros and cons of life of the tribes, torn between two nations and how the imposition of state machinery impoverishes them and interferes with their life. Despite being a telling depiction of troubles created by the post-colonial overdeveloped state. Alongside, it shows the obsolete practices of the tribes, the plight of the women who search for any agency available to escape, the prevalence of honour killings and other ugly truths. The new fate is accepted with resilience despite the strains of nostalgia. The fortitude of the people living in a barren land, their struggle for survival and their simple wisdom is admirable, which I find lacking in most ‘educated’ people of today.
When a child asks an old man, how he grew so old, the man replied it was raw onions. “What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.”
Or for example, the eccentric character of Mullah Barrerai who acknowledges that he does not believe in the fables of Paradise, but narrates them only to soothe the plights of people who have nothing. “These are not lies. These stories are like ointment, meant for healing, or like a piece of ice in the summer, with which water in a glass is cooled.” Then there are men like Sardar Karim Khan who has doubts about the efficacy of conscience. “…do not talk to me of conscience. What kind of a guide is it when it comforts the evil man in his labours no less willingly than another who struggles against wrong. Never have I seen a man truly troubled by his conscience. Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house. It has to remain cheerful at all times for fear of being thrown out. Our cause is right, because we think it is right—but never depend on conscience, yours or another man’s.” This one reminded me of the lines of The Second Coming about how ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.
There are instances of wry humour. When a poor man names his daughter Shah Zarina, the author remarks, “In these mountain areas, the poorer the family, the more high-sounding names it gave its children.”
The tales move from the arid sands of Baluchistan to the jagged peaks of Chitral interspersed with clear mountain brooks flowing across pebbly beds and melting glaciers. The locale is drawn adroitly to show both the beauty and ferocity of the terrain, qualities which seem to have seeped into the character of the people inhabiting these lands.
Tor Baz is not just the protagonist but a symbol of the pastoral life here. Orphaned as a child, he travels from village to village, associates with different kinds of people and finally decides to settle down, symbolising that way of wanderings must come to an end and the tribes too must settle down and adapt to the structures of the state.