Italian traveller and writer Niccolao Manucci, known for his work Storia do Mogor, worked for Dara Shukoh, emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son and chosen heir, and thus had first-hand knowledge of the Mughal court. He is one of the two narrators of Kakar’s book. The other is François Bernier, a French physician and traveller, who for 12 years was attached to Aurangzeb, who killed elder brother Dara to become emperor. Bernier is credited with writing the first published post-Classical classification of humans into distinct races. He also wrote Travels in the Mughal Empire, which is mainly about Dara and Aurangzeb.
Kakar’s triumph is in choosing his two narrators, who speak to the reader in alternate chapters. It’s also his undoing.
The book is set in the dying years of Shah Jahan’s reign. The monarch indulges in the pleasures of the flesh to divert himself from the travails of an aging body. A fratricidal battle is brewing among his sons — Dara, Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad — for the Peacock Throne, which epitomises the splendour of Shah Jahan’s rule.
This may not be the best period of the Mughal rule, but it is certainly the most intriguing. The chief contenders to the throne, Dara and Aurangzeb, are the dream-come-true for a fiction writer weaving a tale of two warring protagonists. Dara is the charismatic heir, the emperor’s favourite son, who is full of tolerance for diverse religious beliefs. He has written much on the Oneness of God and Man, the immanence of the Divine and the consequent assertion that there is no difference between various religions. He also writes about a dream in which he saw Vashishtha and Rama and Rama embracing him.
Aurangzeb is austere, indeed ascetic, and the son Shah Jahan openly dislikes. He has taken it upon himself to restore the purity of his faith and establish a rigidly Islamic state — with cold fury. One of the flashpoints between the brothers occurs when Aurangzeb, during his governorship of Gujarat, desecrates the ancient temple of Chintaman by sacrificing cows within the temple grounds and then converting it into a mosque. Dara uses his influence with the emperor to restore the temple to the Hindus.
Given their ringside seats, Bernier and Manucci present a fascinating account of the times and give us a glimpse of how the Europeans would be viewing India and its peoples. In a little passage, Bernier agrees with the Mohammedans’ abhorrence of the idolaters — as the Hindus are referred to — as naïve and primitive people with no conception of God as the Creator of the world and believing in hundreds of gods and goddesses, many of them oddly shaped and having animal heads. In a short few lines early in the book, Manucci makes the illuminating observation that the urban landscape in India appears desolate and in decay even though more people in India live in towns than in Europe. That, he says, is because gardens, mansions, and palaces are kept in repair only so long as the owner is alive. Each succeeding generation tries to erect buildings of its own, disregarding the labours of its ancestors.
Such insights are limited to little passages and a short few lines. The two narrators view each other as charlatans and fraud, a view that seems about right. Manucci claims to be a healer on the basis of a dozen or so days spent with an Ayurveda practioner, who believes that the cure for all ailment is a good crap. The Italian made his way into the Mughal court by administering an almighty enema to a queen who had been in coma for days. She is revived with a violent purge. Bernier is always suspicious of Manucci and declares him a quack, but his own medical education lasted all of three months.
The narrators address a European audience and may be driven by a desire to romanticise their lives by adding exciting and mystical events in which they had roles to play. Manucci, particularly, seems keen to talk of his numerous sexual conquests.
Many passages are devoted to sex and sexual appetite, and how it is satiated and yet is not. We get to know about Kanjaris, dancing girls with amazingly supple limbs, who on occasion got into an elephant formation: Four making the feet, four others the body, and one the trunk. And that Shah Jahan often rode the “elephant” in his pleasure pavilion, both rider and elephant devoid of a stitch of clothing. The rot in the harem is described in detail. Confined like caged birds and closely guarded by trusted eunuchs, the women (Shah Jahan had 2,000 in his harem) pine for attention and long to touch and be touched by a man. You can feel Manucci’s racing pulse as he talks about women pretending to be ill simply to have a chance to talk to him and have their pulse felt by him. As he reached inside the curtain that guarded the women, it was not always the wrist that was offered to him.
Kakar is a proven writer and gets into the mind of the narrators like the consummate psychoanalyst he is. This book is becoming popular and has been liked by many reviewers. Khushwant Singh, in his weekly column in the Hindustan Times, said he loved it. He would.
A thick Bengali accent (“shapotaar” for supporter) isn’t usual for scholars such as Guha describes.