Perhaps the most authoritative set of documentaries ever made about World War II is The World at War series first released in the UK in 1973. The acclaimed Jeremy Isaacs produced the 26-part series, and each episode began with an introduction by Isaacs.
The first emperor: A miniature portrait of Babur, whose frailties and doubts are depicted by Rutherford. AFP
In one such introduction, perhaps for an episode early on in the series, Isaacs talks about how that particular instalment told its story differently. It was not told from the perspective of massive armies, pincer movements or U-boat raids, but from that of the people. In this episode, Isaacs explains, you will hear about the war from the men and women who lived through it and whose lives were drastically transformed by it.
Isaacs’ words reverberated strongly in my head as I began reading Alex Rutherford’s Raiders from the North, the first in his Empire of the Moghul quintet on the Mughals.
The book, an uneven, movie-script-like but thoroughly enjoyable read, focuses entirely on the life of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty.
What a life it was. Forced to the throne at the age of 12, after the untimely death of his father in a freak accident, Babur began his reign from the tiny kingdom of Fergana. Compared with the empire he would later build, Fergana was an insignificant little valley nestled between modern-day Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
What Rutherford tries to do in this “historical novel” is to explain the why, how and what of Babur’s many victories and defeats, culminating in his unlikely conquest of Hindustan. And he does this with a foot in each of the two styles of history that Isaacs spoke about in his introduction. Yes, there are armies and a couple of maps and multitudes in motion. But there is also Babur himself and his frailties, doubts and hopes. Stir in a dose of ripe imagination, and it makes the book more than history.
From the opening paragraphs itself, it is clear what Rutherford’s style-substance equation is going to be: “Babur shifted his weight on the stone step and returned his attention to his father, the king, who was pacing the fortress walls, hands clasped against the turquoise fastenings of his robe.”
Raiders from the North is not of the Abraham Eraly or William Dalrymple genre of authorship. It belongs instead with the Valerio Massimo Manfredis and Conn Igguldens on your bookshelf (in fact, I daresay, Iggulden’s recent trio of books on Genghis and Kublai Khan may have inspired Rutherford’s series).
Rutherford goes on to trace the history of Babur’s reign through many ups and downs as he matures into a shrewd ruler and formidable commander of armies. And we are constantly reminded, through Babur’s thoughts and words, that his prime motivation is to be remembered in history as an able successor to Timur, the great Mongol warlord who was his ancestor.
What Rutherford has done is to paint the outlines of Babur’s history with broad brushstrokes—one thing happens after the other in the right order but no one is really keeping track of time or space. Rutherford then fills in the details, where he chooses to, with dramatic flair. For instance, this is what he says about harem doors: “The silver doors shuddered under the impact of a battering ram carried up from one of the courtyards below and the turquoises shattered, bright shards falling to the floor. Yet the doors held. Beneath the shining silver, the wood must be thick and the bolts strong, Babur thought…”
The book does not include detailed maps or use too many dates. Instead, Rutherford gives Babur much introspection to do and it is largely through the emperor’s thoughts that we piece together the man and his story. Plenty of secondary characters troop in and out of the plot, but none of them leave a lasting impression.
Yet Rutherford’s writing never does the one thing that could have made this book even better: Leave me with a lasting mental picture of the first Mughal. Instead, what you get is a combination of Wikipedia-like facts, some engaging dialogue and colourful, visual prose.
You wouldn’t want to refer to the book if you were giving an exam on the Mughals, but it would do well enough to fuel cocktail party chatter (if there are cocktail parties where one chats about this sort of thing). It passed the ultimate test: I do look forward to reading the forthcoming Empire books. Especially the Akbar one.
Rutherford has a tough job on his hands, though. In my mind Akbar already has a shape and form. It’s called Hrithik. And it’s awesome.