We’re not stans for Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb. But last year, she was among the first and most resolute writers to roll up her sleeves and respond to the politically motivated re-imagination of India’s flashiest and most flowery emperors, the Mughals.
As murmurs grow about the foreignness of the Taj Mahal and textbooks are rewritten to make Maharana Pratap the winner of the battle of Haldighati, bookshelves have started to groan under the weight of delightful popular histories that take a fresh look at that most extra empire. Below, find a guide to all the exciting new books that came out in 2018 (yes, alone). Look before you leap into your next WhatsApp argument!
Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait: Fresh off the presses, Parvati Sharma’s cool, deceptively casual biography of the fourth emperor tries to find a middle ground between the brash, gorgeous Salim of Mughal-e-Azam and the opium-addicted mama’s boy of popular legend. She succeeds! Her tone will turn the hair of serious historians grey (Sample: “Mango-loyalist and aesthete, sentimental and cruel, Jahangir was yet another thing: a fond parent.”). But her libertine novelist’s style is firmly rooted in historical analysis. The most fun book on this list and a serious contender for a list of 2018’s Most Fun Books in general.
Shah-Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Emperor: Between Jahangir and this, Fergus Nicoll’s biography of his son, you’ll know more about succession battles in mediaeval India than you ever thought necessary. Before someone makes the story of Shah Jahan and his brothers (spoiler: the others were all murdered ruthlessly) an Indian Game of Thrones with better skin care, snatch this up. For all the mighty deeds Shah Jahan accomplished, this is actually the first popular biography of him to be published in generations, and it’s good.
Empress: The Astonishing Reign Of Nur Jahan: This book by Ruby Lal is the most well-liked of this year’s crop of Mughal blossoms. It’s not hard to see why. Like Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra - another unusual, elegant bestseller that tried to demystify a legendary queen - Lal’s biography investigates Nur Jahan and her time through what isn’t said about her. (Cleopatra’s records were pillaged, burned and erased: NJ just had the bad luck of belonging to a civilisation that thought making women’s names and deeds public was equal to despoiling them). Unlike Schiff’s book, Lal’s rescue operation tends to veer into breathlessness, and we’re left feeling like we’re sucking up to a popular girl rather than trying to understand her. Still, we’ll take one for Team Mehrunissa.
Daughters Of The Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire: Ira Mukhoty’s book also goes on the Most Fun reading list, because everything and everyone in her book is wildly interesting. From the intrepid Gulbadan Begum, who wrote a lively history of her brother Humayun’s court; to Jahangir’s Rajput mother, who was a shipping baron in her day; to Aurangzeb’s sister Jahanara (whose greatest achievement isn’t even that Kareena Kapoor will probably play her in Takht, btw) - Mukhoty not only plunges into individual stories but creates a satisfying, if slightly over-written picture of how the women’s quarters of the Mughal Empire created a powerful and tightly-knit legacy of its own.
Khazana: What? They’re not all histories! Last year’s Masterchef UK winner, Saliha Mahmood Ahmed, just produced this “Indo-Persian cookbook with recipes inspired by the Mughals.” It’s clearly written for her British audience (“Most people know very little about the Mughal emperors,” she trills in the introduction). But its paint-by-numbers history doesn’t prevent it from being beautifully photographed and thoughtfully constructed. From ‘Mughal eggs and beans’ to honey and cardamom quails with spiced figs and bulghur wheat, this is mouth-watering. It’s both a diversion from our fiery orange notions of ‘Mughlai’ cooking and a nice updation of historical cookbooks like the Alwan-e-Nemat.
Babur: Timurid Prince and Mughal Emperor, 1483-1530: This is hard, because no general history about Babur can quite outmatch the sheer joy of reading the Baburnama, the emperor’s own cheeky, whimsical and outrageously entertaining memoir. Stephen F Dale is a veteran historian of Islamic politics in mediaeval Asia, though, and he doesn’t come to play. This crisp and entertaining biography is easy and approachable by academic standards. It provides an excellent view of Babur’s wandering chieftainship, as well as how he came to assert himself over India - a story that isn’t often examined closely or fairly within India itself. Dale also joins the long list of historians who are certain that the Babri Masjid was not built in Ayodhya out of spite for Hindu sentiment. So, you know, take that and put it in a WhatsApp forward.
Photo Source: Khazana
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