Today, in The Wire, Prof. Truschke has written about how scholarly voices are being silenced in India. She came under the criticism of some rightwing Hindu fanatics for writing a history about the Emperor Aurangzeb, which showed him in a better light than popular belief. I give below my own take on the Great Moghul, allowing humour to triumph over history.
- A MOGHUL TEA PARTY
THE EMPEROR SHAHJEHAN: A
handsome man, with an imperial beard, beautifully dressed, as you have seen in
PRINCESS JAHANARA: Very
beautiful, a bit like Aiswarya Rai, dressed in salwar kameez
PRINCESS ROSHANARA: A
younger version of her older sister
CROWN PRINCE DARA SHIKOH: A
handsome young man of 22, informally dressed in kurta pyjamas
PRINCE AURANGAZEB: Slim
and handsome, similarly dressed
PRINCE MURAD: Still
a boy, rather tubby, similarly dressed
The royal rose
gardens in Agra
early spring, 1637
THE SETTING: [It is the royal rose garden of Akbarabad
in the 17th century... A
magnificent low table laden with fruits, and a hundred dishes, on a wide
beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully dressed serving maids flutter about
arranging things, and leave. THE EMPEROR SHAHJEHAN enters, followed by his
sons, DARA SHIKOH, MURAD, and AURANGAZEB,
and his daughters, JAHANARA and ROSHANARA, chatting. They seat themselves on low cushions, and start to help
themselves generously. After a little clatter, SHAHJEHAN speaks]
want to discuss something important, that’s why I have sent away the servants.
All our advisors have their own axes to grind,
they are such clever bastards they have me confused. But I know I can
trust your judgement.
AURANGAZEB: [concerned] What’s up Dad? I should have
been more attentive at
Court, I know, but I have been
travelling through the villages in the Ganga basin. I came back to report that most of our poor
Hindu farmers have had a disastrous year. There isn’t enough food to go around,
and frankly I find all this opulence disgusting.
SHAHJEHAN: Zebby, that’s precisely what I am
concerned about. We must do something quickly, but what?
DARA SHIKOH: Excuse
me, we are an Islamic empire, are we not? Zebby is always so solicitous about
these benighted kafirs. Why don’t they convert to Islam?
You are such a Muslim fundamentalist! Maybe it comes of being Crown Prince, or
something. Don’t let anyone outside the palace hear you talk like that, or the
Rajputs will be up in revolt.
SHAHJEHAN: Dar, that’s right, you are Crown
Prince, and you’ve got to be a lot more diplomatic. Remember the way
grandfather Akbar got round everybody? Marrying into their royal family,
bringing Hindu pandits to Court. For one thing, they were excellent
DARA SHIKOH: Dad, I’m very careful, but to be honest,
I can’t stomach most of their customs – I mean, take Sati, women being
butchered because their aged dotard husbands have died! And dedicating young
girls to their filthy temples and making them devadasis. Disgusting!
AURANGAZEB : Dar! I won’t have you speak of customs
you don’t understand. Why don’t you read some of the books on Hinduism in the
old Humanyun Library for a change? Sex is not something filthy – how do you
think you were born? – it is the force of Nature that produces eternal rebirth.
JAHANARA: Dad, please stop them arguing about
religion. Zebby will always be a Hindu, and Dar an old-fashioned Arab maulvi. I
am sick and tired of such arguments, not at tea time in any case. Mumu, don’t
nods in agreement but keeps on eating and drinking]
have something more important to think about than Islam or Hinduism. The people
are on the verge of starvation, and I am determined to prevent a famine at all
cost. I have a vague plan I want to check out with you first. The rains have
failed in the Doab, but the Deccan
has had a
good harvest. Our Hindu merchants could bring up the grain very quickly by
forced marches, but, here is the problem, the poor have no purchasing power.
Remember Dar when your time comes, never get offside of your Hindu merchants.
They will save the empire for you, if you keep your Islamic fundamentalism in
check. So, what’s to be done?
ROSHANARA: Dad, I can’t bear to see our Hindu
subjects in such a pitiable plight. Buy the grain, Dad, empty the treasury if
you must, but buy and distribute free.
SHAHJEHAN: Rosy, you are such a soft-hearted
girl it gets in the way of your good sense. You know what will happen? Our
merchants will corner all the wheat, and people will still starve. Our Hindus
are pious and efficient, but for them the laws of commerce are the laws of God.
MURAD: [suddenly breaking silence] Dad, throw a great party for a month.
Let everyone be invited, let everyone eat.
SHAHJEHAN: Mumu, I don’t want to feed our fat
soldiers and our lazy court officials one more morsel. No, public works are the
only way out. Like building roads, buildings, that sort of thing. We must give
work to people, and put money in their hands. It has to be a large public work
that can go on for a number of years, and build up people’s incomes, and yet be
non-controversial, nothing anyone can object to.Something way out, it should
blow their minds.
up] I know just what it should be! Dad! Build a tomb!
SHAHJEHAN: Zebby, don’t be crazy! What do you mean, a tomb?
his seat] Not any old tomb, Dad! But the greatest, the loveliest, the most
extraordinary Tomb ever built. Build it for poor Mom. Every wretched Persian
hanger-on in Court is a poet, or fancies himself a poet. It will be accepted
Dad. Totally, non-controversial!
JAHANARA: History will call you a great wastrel, Dad!
SHAHJEHAN: I don’t care a Banjara’s curse what
history says of me. I think Zebby has got something here. Let me think about
it. But we’ve got to act very quickly.
AURANGAZEB: I will call all the architects round
tomorrow morning to the Diwan-I-Khas. A thousand trades will be vitalized. We
will have fifty thousand men breaking ground across the Jamuna in a week!
People in Rajasthan are in poor shape as well. We will order marble from there;
get all the quarries going! All the artisans as far east as Lucknow will be called up! Just think, Dad!
What will they do with their wages? They are all from farming families, they
will put it into land, into water works. We will banish food scarcity forever!
DARA SHIKOH: Dad, I
give in right away. Zebby should be the next Emperor!
seriously] Dar! This is no joking matter. I don’t like the ramshackle way
we Moguls have run this great land for so long. We must respect the
institutions we build. The right of primogeniture must be scrupulously
respected. Like it or not, Dar, you must be Emperor, when Dad passes away a
thousand years from now, and I will support you, just give me the Finance
DARA SHIKOH: And what will you do with it, Zebs?
AURANGAZEB: We must get rid of all this meaningless extravagance.
We must have a ‘lean and mean’ administration, and invest tax money usefully. Everyone
must become a ‘nationalist.’
JAHANARA: What do you mean by that?
Just the same as loyalty to the Emperor, only it is deeper, it is loyalty to
themselves as a people of one land. India must become a strong unitary
State, allright, under an Islamic Empire, come by in a fit of absence of mind.
Come to think of it, I am going to put on a new ‘persona.’
ROSHANARA: Dad, it is painful to have an
intellectual in the family! What is a ‘persona’?
AURANGAZEB: A word, I thought up – something like a
mask, only you can never take it off. You will be glad to hear, Dar, I am going
to become a very pious Muslim.
DARA SHIKOH: [interested]
Really, has the good Maulvi got through to you at last?
AURANGAZEB : Listen, the trouble with Hinduism is that
the beliefs are too liberal, they are not for this age, maybe for some other
future period. Right now we need strong unified belief, as in Islam, to build a
strong unified State, to bring people together. If we demand loyalty from
people, we must be equally loyal to them. I shall never let any personal
consideration come in the way of ensuring the people’s welfare.
DARA SHIKOH: Zebby, you can go build one unified State
for yourself. I don’t agree with you, seriously. All this talk of unity is very
dangerous. Akbar would have lost Agra
if he had tried to impose uniformity over this great land. He adopted a federal
structure, and that’s the only one that will work. I will follow your example,
Zebby, and put on, what did you call it? – a new ‘persona’. I will act out the
liberal Prince. Rosy, get me some of these Hindu sacred books, will you? I will
have someone translate one of them in my name into Persian. You see, if we let
everyone do his thing, they will all come to us here in Agra, to the Royal Court, to mediate between their
differing interests. And Freedom, not Unity, will get the ‘economy’ going.
JAHANARA: Now, what in heaven’s name is that?
DARA SHIKOH: Well, I can coin terms just as well as
Zebby here. I don’t just mean commerce, or trade, or agriculture, but the sum
total of work, how each work activity supports and depends on another work
activity. That inter-relationship is what makes the gross product of all work
grow, and that growth is dependent on local freedom of action, not on Zebby’s
idea of a strong centralized State.
SHAHJEHAN: I love to see my children argue.
MURAD: All this is nonsense, Dad.
You don’t have to do extraordinary things to get people going. Build your tomb
if you like. I am all for art, and extravagance. You should hear Father Pius go
on about how art and architecture brought wealth to poor cities like Firenze, Venezia, Milano, of his country. Dad, people
don’t want to do great things like Zebby, they just want to have a good time. Have
we any idea how many people were employed to produce this single bottle of
wine? Or these dishes? They all represent work, money, incomes. And dancing
girls mean jewellery, costumes, weaves of cotton and silk of a thousand hues.
This great land lives on its textiles. A rich life for us means a good life for
everyone in Hindustan!
JAHANARA: I don’t understand any of this
intellectual cut and thrust. No one in court understands any of you either, I
know. I am sure even in the future, learned historians will never understand
any of you. Anyway, these ideas have given me a headache. Mumu, let’s go away,
and plan a great party.
and Murad leave]
ROSHANARA: We are such a
close-knit family. I hope all these stupid ideas never come between us, and we
always stay together.
worry, Rosy, love. We will always stay together.
[AURANGAZEB grips his
father’s hand, while DARA SHIKOH looks on fondly. ]