The majestic tomb of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, in New Delhi hides another grave - of Dara Shikoh, scholar, philosopher and the man who would have ascended the Peacock Throne if history had not intervened. Murad Ali Baig's novel, Ocean of Cobras, which will be launched on Monday, fictionalises the Mughal War of Succession (1657-1661) that sealed Dara's fate. Uttaran Das Gupta talks to the author about his upcoming book
From writing on cars to a historical novel - how did this happen?
I have written on cars, travel, environment, rural India as well as history, mythology and religion. My last book, 80 Questions to Understand India, sold about 30,000 copies. I follow my passions: a man can love his wife and also his dog.
Hillary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, said writing historical novels was a second choice when she realised she would not be a historian. You were already well-reputed as a journalist and a non-fiction writer. Why the move to fiction?
I am a historian with an MA in history. So access to records was not too difficult. Textbooks unfortunately mention Dara only as a footnote to the history of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and others.
My experience in marketing tractors and motorcycles took me to every part of India, and I visited many of the sites where battles took place, and other places mentioned in the book.
It was not easy learning to write fiction after straight narratives on many different subjects. Ocean of Cobras is authentic history as told by a fictitious narrator - a eunuch in the Mughal court, who is a witness to everything, from the intrigues of the harem to the battlefields.
Can you tell us something about the title of the book?
The Mughals took omens very seriously. Strange events like millions of snakes suddenly appearing in Bengal or the predictions of a wandering fakir prejudiced Shah Jahan against Aurangzeb, which in turn made the prince bitter and determined.
Dara has gained a sort of mythical reputation as a poet and secular-minded leader. Do you think he would have made an able administrator of the Mughal empire?
Dara, Shah Jahan's favourite son, was a great scholar but also an able military commander, who continued the armed struggle against his brother Aurangzeb for more than a year. The Persian scribes of the Mughal court wrote off Dara after the Battle of Samugarh. European writers depended mainly on street gossip.
Dara had deep respect for Hindu and Sufi philosophy, and his ascent to the throne might have led to a continuation of religious harmony for keeping the Mughal empire together. This was shattered by Aurangzeb's bigoted interpretation of Islam. But my novel does question if Dara was strong enough to hold such a turbulent empire together.
On the contrary, don't you think Aurangzeb earned a reputation of a ruthless bigot and religious fundamentalist?
Aurangzeb really became bitter and bigoted in the last 30 years of his life. (He lived to be nearly 90.) He usually tried to be just to all his subjects.
There has been some speculation of how different Indian history would have been if Dara had ascended the throne.
Indian history would have been different. Many would be surprised to learn that Dara had translated 59 Upanishads, and the Bhagwad Gita from Sanskrit to Persian so that the Hindu religious texts would gain wider circulation in the empire. Others would find it surprising the Dara considered Allah to be god to everyone and not just Muslims, like Aurangzeb did.
Mughal history has served as inspiration for fictional work in India for centuries. Do you think your novel has contemporary relevance?
I think my novel is very relevant: many Mughal customs of governance and taxation survive to this day.
The fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture during Mughal times is a tradition all Indians could cherish.