08 September 2009

Empire of the Moghul by Alex Rutherford

The emperor who built that beautiful old mosque we tore down
This is a fictionalized account of the life and times of the first Moghul emperor, Babur, and starts in 1494 in the little kingdom of Ferghana in Central Asia, with the king feeding doves and telling his son, the 12-year-old Babur, stories of his great ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur.
Babur listens, fascinated, but does not share the king’s tender affection for his doves (Stupid little birds. The best place for them was plucked and poached in a sauce of pomegranates and crushed walnuts.) As they speak, a large chunk of the battlements where the dovecote had been collapses to the ground, taking the king with it and killing him.

The court is full of ambitious nobles who quickly begin to negotiate with neighbouring kings, striking alliances that will bring them personal power and the kingdom of Ferghana.
Babur may be only a child, but he establishes himself as the rightful king once and for all when he strikes off the head of his scheming tortoise-faced vazir ("vizier") Qambar Ali with one blow of his trusty sword of justice, the symbol of Ferghana, Alamgir.
The assembled courtiers have watched the confrontation in silence and now little Babur roars out, “I may be young but
am of the blood of Timur and your rightful king! Does any man present challenge my right to rule?” In awe, they take up the chant “Babur Mirza, Babur Mirza …”
We now share the dramatic travails of Babur’s life and follow him to Samarkand, Kabul and Delhi.
We in India have many legends and grow up with stories of our historical and mythological figures, and they have entrenched themselves as stereotypes in our lives. But Babur is a vague,
ill-defined figure and this book brings him alive for us.
There are four more books planned in this series. Interestingly, Alex Rutherford is not a man but a husband and wife! I got an interview with the two-headed creature that wrote this book, but unfortunately no photograph so am picking some Baburnama-type stuff to make this section look pretty …
What are your names?
We are husband and wife team Diana and Michael Preston. Amongst our previous books is the non-fiction history of the Taj Mahal, A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time.
How did you come up with the team name of Alex Rutherford?
Above all we wanted a name we both liked and that had the right ring to it. Trying to find one was fun - but also far more time consuming than we'd guessed. After testing various combinations on long suffering friends, we chose Alex because it could be the name of either a man or a woman and Rutherford because it felt right - it has a Scottish ring and we both have Scottish ancestors.
Why did you keep your identities secret until now?
We wanted 'Alex
Rutherford' to become established as the personality behind the Empire of the Moghul quintet before revealing who we were. That's why we kept in the background. We also kept in the background because we want people to enjoy the story of the Moghuls and their magnificent lifestyle, rather than to focus on the authors. The Moghuls are much more exciting and glamorous than us!
Why did you choose Babur as your subject?
The idea of writing about
Babur - and in fact the inspiration for the entire quintet - grew out of researching our Taj Mahal book. To help us understand the place of the Taj in India's history, we started reading all about the Moghul emperors, including, of course, Babur the first emperor. We were bowled over by the richness and vividness of the material, especially Babur's own account of his life, the Baburnama, the earliest autobiography in Islamic literature.
Babur reveals in frank, often disarming, detail
everything from his thoughts on his shrewish first wife, to his ambitions as an aspiring robber prince bent on grabbing an empire, to how the sweet, dewy taste of a melon, brought to him down through the Khyber Pass from his homelands, made his eyes prick with tears, to how he cemented the heads of his enemies into towers to his dreams of founding an empire greater even that of his great ancestor Timur and of how, in India, after much heartbreak and danger he finally succeeded.
What are the other four novels in the quintet about?
Babur's reign was, of course, just the start of an epic period of Indian history. We didn't want to stop there but to recreate the drama of what happened next - to show how, for all their outward brilliance, the Moghul dynasty founded by Babur was tainted by the poison of jealousy seeping corrosively down through the generations. The story of the Moghuls is a vicious circle of sons plotting against fathers, brothers murdering brothers and half-brothers and of empresses and would-be empresses plotting, scheming and seducing. Re-creating this in a series of novels was irresistible to us as story-tellers.
The second novel in the quintet 'Brothers at War', to be published next year, is about Babur's son
Humayun, warrior and dreamer and second Moghul emperor.
The third novel covers the brilliant reign of the
charismatic and liberal Akbar, truly the greatest of the 'Great Moghuls'.
The fourth novel about Akbar's son Jahangir will show how the
cycle of distrust and rivalry that will ultimately doom the Moghuls is in full motion.
The fifth and last novel of the quintet will be about
the final flowering of the Moghuls under the last great emperor, the jewel-loving Shah Jahan, devoted husband of Mumtaz Mahal and builder of the Taj Mahal, with whose passing the once magnificent Moghul empire began to fade into anarchy and decline.
Besides the Baburnama, what other reference sources did you use?
We were fortunate there's so much good material. We have been able to draw the major events - battles, coups, deaths, executions - and the principal characters from the immense treasure trove of original sources that have survived. As well as the Baburnama we have, for example, the Akbarnama written by Abul Fazl, Akbar's chronicler, which covers Babur, Humayun and the Moghuls' early days as well as Akbar. We also have the Humayunnama written by Babur's daughter Gulbadan. The physical and emotional detail of the Moghul period is superbly captured in these chronicles and also, for the later Moghul emperors, in other surviving letters and diaries that convey the sheer excitement of events as they unfold. They burst with compelling, exuberant stories not only about great battles and the passions of family politics but more intimate things like the number of an emperor's concubines and the frequency of his couplings, the name of his favourite war elephant, the cost of his bed linen and the way the empire was ruled.
For the later emperors beginning with Akbar, we also have the accounts and letters of European visitors - merchants, mercenaries and missionaries - to the Moghul court. These reveal the visitors' open-mouthed wonder at the spectacle of Moghul wealth and sophistication beyond anything the European courts could offer. To Europeans, the magnificent Moghuls were like characters from an exotic legend. They fastened on every fantastical aspect of Moghul life - gems the size of duck eggs, the gold-leaf decorated food and rose-scented wine prepared for the imperial table, the number of wives and concubines the emperors enjoyed and the other sensual aspects of Moghul life. A French doctor, exceptionally invited into the imperial harem to treat a woman there, wrote in amazement that he could not locate her pulse because so many ropes of pearls were wound around her arms. The first English ambassador to the Moghul court, Sir Thomas Roe, gives a nice snap shot when, in Jahangir's reign, he describes the Moghul court in terms which could fit the cast of a Shakespearean tragedy: 'a noble prince, an excellent wife, a faithful councillor, a crafty stepmother, an ambitious son, a cunning favourite .'
How did you divide up the research between you?
The quick answer is that we didn't! We went everywhere together. We both love travel and one of the great pleasures and privileges of writing this series is the places it is taking us to, both in India (where we've spent over a year of our lives in total) and in Central Asia, the Moghuls' ancestral homelands. We feel very lucky to be able to work as a team. It's nice to have someone to compare thoughts and impressions with - and memories.

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