Let us recognize from the outset that it may be tempting, even in 2022, to send the popular stories of the Mughal empire to battle to defend a historic India: that is to say the one that we imagine through the reasoned interpretation , rather than that elaborated into violent fantasies of Hindu-majority victimization. This temptation is precisely what Akbar of Hindustan, Parvati Sharma’s anecdotal and not-quite-intimate story of this empire’s most energetic builder resists. Sharma’s literary instincts guide this book as firmly as his 2018 biography of Akbar’s son and successor, Jahangir. It is a book of the present time, but it avoids talking about the present.

A novelist who can work in the compassionate vein as well as comics, Sharma doesn’t need to have chosen Akbar for a subject at all. He is a monument more than a person, and the challenge of writing about him may feel more like a project of ambition than a search for the truth. In the clamor of war and mass cruelty that resounds across the world, the story of an imperialist of six hundred years ago runs, after all, the risk of creating little more than a clan – distant clang: master tools, building a master house.

Akbar is more distant and complicated than Aurangzeb or Shah Jahan, who were both polarizing and polarizing political actors even in their time. No document of Akbar’s inner life approaches the vivid immediacy of the memoirs of his grandfather Babur. The outer life is a subject worthy of libraries, not isolated volumes. In the 21st century, Akbar’s storytellers must struggle not only with each other, but also with the importance he places on popular culture, including movies and TV shows. He lives in myth and legend.

Akbar’s time

A simplified version of Akbar of Hindustan would see his job as synthesizing those few hundred Akbars into one man for now. In Jahangir, Sharma has recreated his subject’s largely misunderstood life in a modern vein, making him seem closer to us than ever. But with Akbar, she takes on a matter that even her closest contemporaries cannot simplify. No volume can defend it from deliberate misunderstanding, and any new idea about it may now require the work of a lifetime.

This is perhaps the reason why the project of the book gives the impression that it is a question of familiarizing us with the time of Akbar, even more than with his life. For long sections of his book, Sharma writes about Akbar through the people around him. His father and son catch our eye at either end of the story. Between the two, the stars of Akbarid’s universe scatter their light in procession: statesmen like Bairam Khan and dissidents like Ali Quli Shaibani, forgotten challengers like Mirza Hakim, Akbar’s half-brother, and – where the sources permit – the women of the court, Akbar’s “domes of chastity”, as political, intellectual and emotional beings.

Akbar of Hindustan is, in essence, a literary exercise in reading Akbar through those who wrote about him during his lifetime. Two towering depictions of Akbar have emerged from his time. the Akbarnama was composed by Abul Fazl – “our own Abul Fazl”, calls him Sharma, adopting for us the friend and beloved chronicler who named Akbar shahinshah, the king of kings. And there was Badauni, the acerbic critic who wrote in secret to leave us with a trace of Akbar’s heterodoxy, his unfaithfulness to principles and his instrumentalization of people. He was Abul Fazl’s enemy, but also the one who wrote, resigned, that they were “bread from the same oven”.

Sharma tries no more to compete with these voices than Dante tried to do with Virgil. They emerge as dynamic guides through their vanished world. The same goes for Banarasidas, the Jain poet whose life story spans the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The same goes for the Persian Shirazi, with its unforgettable glimpse of the court of the young king, so unlabeled that the writer “did not find anyone with the appearance of a king”, and was appalled to spot, finally, the twenty-year-old, his head bowed to rest on the hand he had placed on a friend’s shoulder. “I could guess he was the king,” Shirazi says, “but the men kept rubbing shoulders.”

No reconciliation

A historian’s job is to interpret these sources, but Sharma arranges them into a symphony of voices, leading them into a half-joyful, half-melancholic harmony. She does not mediate their contradictions or rationalize their absurdities, though she contextualizes them with wit and clarity. His curiosity satisfies ours. It’s usually embarrassing when academics turn to speculative writing (“He would have thought x” or “She would have turned to y”), a concession to our basic desire as readers to want to know things. But in Sharma’s book, the villain “would” arguably works more successfully.

“There is no record of how long Akbar watched them burn,” she tells us of the Skirmish at Paronkh, Akbar’s first victory as frontline commander-in-chief , “whether he took advantage of the glow of victory or retreated as the smell of burning flesh filled the air. It is a ghastly scene, full of contradictions. We cannot know what what his protagonist thought. But according to Sharma, it is not because of the remoteness of his time, but rather the difficulty of the situation. Would a soldier today know what to think and say, record and repress?

Akbar of Hindustan does not seek to reassure us with the convenience of knowing things. We can know them from any competent biography of the man. Rather, he tries ambiguity, which we are used to seeing as a mark of our times. But it was also, and perhaps above all, a trademark of Akbar. He was both Abul Fazl’s and Badauni’s Akbar, after all. He was both a warlord and a statesman, loving and aloof, a Muslim and something different from other Muslims. A casual writer could easily reconcile all these contradictions. But Sharma’s book reminds us, more humbly, that very few human beings are reconciled with themselves. Akbar’s life does not lend itself to casualness.

Authoritarians want every question in the world to have only one correct answer. Sharma’s book of Akbar is certainly a normalizer. It establishes the law, the bureaucracy and the philosophy of government, because there is no other way to control an empire. But he is also, inevitably, a researcher. He listens to the Catholics and argues with the imams, forces poor Badauni to translate the Mahabharata (“childish”, laments the master) and is as free from his doubts as from his certainties. He had no time to waste in concocting simple explanations for the prodigiously large tent he had erected over Hindustan.

Latest bloom?

The ambivalence in Akbar of Hindustan looks like the opposite of a biographer’s task. But perhaps it was necessary for the book to exist in a situation that Sharma’s careful and sometimes equivocal narration does not directly confront. “Did you enjoy the book,” texted me as I wrote this review. “sort of,” I replied. “Most of the time I was very sad that it happened (sic) at such a time.” I had to follow this. “but that leaves room for that.”

In 2022, the only people who spend more time thinking about Mughal emperors than historians are Hindu fundamentalists. It has been easy to view the minor flourishing of popular writing about these kings as the first category’s defiant reaction to the second. It’s harder, but perhaps necessary, to imagine that these books might be the latest showpiece of intellectual joy in the period re-examinations we’ll see for some time to come. The thugs currently ravaging the lives of Muslims in India have no interest in reading Audrey Truschke, Ruby Lal or Ira Mukhoty. Many may not know that these writers exist. But the future they envision is simply not one in which these authors’ books are produced and discussed in India.

Historians also write for a future they will never see. The same goes for imaginative writers like Sharma. She does not use Akbar to evoke the idea of ​​a different India. His book no more argues against the realities of our time than it tries to argue with the 1500s. It was also a time of catastrophe and bereavement, especially for the Mughals themselves. Some of its beauties have been preserved through the ages. Sharma’s book doesn’t try to balance these things at all. It may, in itself, be a record for future readers more than for current readers. The descendants of this world can read it and learn that even in this place and time we could do great things.

Akbar of HindustanParvati Sharma, Juggernaut Books.

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