Brothers At War | Alex Rutherford

A few chapters into the first book in the Empire of the Moghul trilogy, Raiders from the North, and I was hooked. And a little embarrassed for it. If a review request hadn’t been forthcoming, I would have never ever picked up a copy of Alex Rutherford’s debut. I am not a snob by any means, and I have the Ludlums to prove it, but period fiction just isn’t my cup of tea.

The emperor’s memory: Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi is a Unesco World Heritage site. Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Period fiction requires two leaps of my imagination. My imagination, I was under the impression, was not so leapy. And then I read the excellent ‘Raiders from the North’. And I leapt verily!

That book was an engaging, well-balanced work that told the story of Babar’s impossible rise to power and the genesis of the Mughal empire. The book had a certain cinematic heft to it, with a TV documentary-like treatment of the dramatic and the historic. In that context it was also a book that went well with the contemporary need to dramatize history. Big budget TV series such as The Tudors, Band of Brothers and the more recent The Pacific all explain spans of history through the feelings, lusts, fears and thrills of their protagonists.

Not with maps and relics, but with sex and savagery.

Raiders, and now Brothers At War, fit that bill perfectly. Book 1 told the story of Babar largely through the eyes of the initially bewildered but gradually maturing lead protagonist. Babar is all at sea at the beginning of his reign. Or, more accurately, perched on the hills in his little speck of a kingdom in Ferghana. But by the end he is a padishah, or emperor.

In book 2, the lead protagonist is now Humayun, Babar’s son and Akbar’s father. The bulk of the book tells the story of how Humayun lost everything Babar seized, is forced to spend years running in search of armies and alliances, and finally returns triumphantly to Hindustan to reclaim his kingdom. And then expand its frontiers even further.

The problem with the book, and what sets it a steep step below the first one, is this: Humayun is a loser. A whiny, self-pitying loser who spent way too much time pondering upon the nature of kingship and leadership, instead of just jumping on a horse and kicking ass. Which would have made the book so much more enjoyable. Of course, we can’t blame the authors—Alex Rutherford is a pseudonym for a husband and wife pair—for Humayun’s historical shortcomings.

There is a historical consensus that he wasn’t an astute military commander. And without generous military aid from the Persian Safavids, Humayun never would have re-established his dynasty at all. Many of these Persians would accompany him to India and thus leave a lasting impression on Mughal architecture and art. Indeed Humayun’s greatest historical legacy is perhaps this transplantation of Persian culture.

So the challenge for Rutherford must have been substantial. How to take this unremarkable character, and make him fictionally satisfying?

They do this by taking several creative liberties with the story— especially a trippy bit in the beginning when Humayun is addicted to opium. And also by significantly upping the gore factor. In book 1 there is plenty of beheading and dismemberment. But always in an aggregate, seen-from-a-distance perspective.

Brothers at War: Headline Review, 427 pages, Rs495.

There is also much labouring over describing landscapes, armour, weapons, harem girls and the sun. Oh God...the sun. At least 10 times in the book the fierce fiery disk of the sun sinks in pink/orange/orangey pinkpinky orange sky.

After a couple of hundred pages you begin to do that dreaded thing you do with overwriting: skipping past paragraphs, turning through tedious dialogue. Which, in this case, is a good thing. The book is a faster, more entertaining read when handled like that. Fast forward through the filler bits and zero in on the action and story.

All in all, Brothers at War is a decidedly less enjoyable read than Raiders from the North. That is not to say that I won’t buy book 3. Given Rutherford’s obvious talent and Jalaluddin Akbar’s history, I am willing to overlook loser Humayun.

No wonder they know Humayun best for his tomb.