Very few writers comprehend the deep structure of the Indian mind, and the way it reveals itself in both public and private behaviour, as the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. Indeed, one of Kakar’s recent books, written in collaboration with his wife Katharina, was a striking wide-angle view of the tangled roots and branches of the Indian psyche called, simply, The Indians.
Kakar has also for around a decade been a practitioner of historical fiction, each book based on the life of a prominent historical personage: the sage Vatsyayana, author of the Kama Sutra, in The Ascetic of Desire; Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda in Ecstasy; Mahatma Gandhi in Mira and the Mahatma. On its new journey the Kakar Bus of Fiction, as it were, stops at yet another intriguing point in Indian history: the Mughal period.
Timeless: (left) Shah Jahan’s ode to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Photograph: Jeremy Edwards
Mughal India has been vividly documented not just by historians and poets, and indeed on occasion the great emperors themselves, but also by the accounts of visitors to the Mughal court. Two of these travellers were the Italian Niccolao Manucci and the Frenchman Francois Bernier. In Kakar’s book their respective memoirs of life in India under Mughal rule are mined to produce a double-sided view of a storied moment in Indian history.
It is 1657, and the health of Shah Jahan, the ageing monarch, is poor, and his capital agog with rumour. The two candidates to succeed Shah Jahan are his eldest son Dara Shikoh and his third son Aurangzeb. Indeed, the future of not just the Mughal empire but (one sees from the long view afforded by history) of different ideas of India is at stake, for no two princes could be more dissimilar.
Although both princes are Sunni Muslims, Dara is in spirit a Sufi, a lover of sensual pleasures and poetry and religious speculation who has a keen interest in Hinduism, and indeed believes that the Upanishads may be the “hidden books” alluded to by the Quran. His empire would be a world far removed from that promised by Aurangzeb, whose austere nature is influenced by no other source but the Quran. Although Dara is Shah Jahan’s favourite, Aurangzeb is the more adept at the ruthlessness and calculation needed to yield the prize of power.
The competing attractions of the two brothers are embodied and reflected by the two narrators of the novel. Manucci, an exuberant scapegrace, born in poverty in Venice, many years an itinerant traveller in India, is delighted at having won himself a position, more from shrewdness and presence of mind than from real knowledge, of a doctor in the Mughal court. Nothing symbolizes his enterprising nature more than an incident where he conducts an exorcism by chanting a powerful mantra, which he later reveals was nothing other than “the ‘Hail Mary’ in rapid-fire Italian”. Here is a spirit who would find much to admire in Shikoh.
Bernier, meanwhile, is not as enthusiastic a convert to India as Manucci, seeing it always from the detached perspective of someone schooled in another way of life. He thinks Indians are too disorganized, too servile and too emotional, and cannot see Hindus, from his Christian viewpoint, as anything but “idolaters”. While not agreeing with Aurangzeb’s veneration of religion above all other matters, he nevertheless believes that the Mughal empire would be better served by someone conversant with the laws of power and statecraft than by a dreamer. Both narrators take potshots at each other and provide conflicting versions of incidents, illustrating not just a truth about human nature and its prejudices but indeed a truth of the novel form, which through multiple points of view shows us how much of our worldview is not fact but interpretation.
The perspective of two outsiders allows Kakar a rich vein of comment on Indian social life, religion, politics, and especially sex, a subject on which he has always had much to say. We are told by Manucci, himself a great lover of the female form, that Shah Jahan has an enormous harem of beautiful women and yet dreads sexual monotony, precisely because he can have any woman he wants. Craving the touch of danger that will make sex interesting, he begins to prey on the wives of his generals. This particular illuminates a universal: that desire is not just a function of the body, but also that of the mind and of the relation between two people.
With such a treasure trove of compelling material, it would have been hard for The Crimson Throne not to be interesting. Yet one feels that Kakar’s narration is a capable but not especially memorable one. Kakar reprises the mode of first-person narration he has found in his sources, but passes up the opportunity to make his narrators not familiar, but strange. We hear only what they want to tell us, not what they would conceal or distort. Our relationship with them remains formal. For this reason, his novel (which provides a bibliography at the end) does not completely shake off the shadow of its sources; it impresses but never surprises the reader. Kakar’s knowledge of his subject, more than his daring as a storyteller working in a complex art form, is what carries The Crimson Throne through.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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