Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

June 7, 2009 § 1 Comment


Emperors of the Peacock Throne (Eraly, Abraham)

Emperors of the Peacock Throne  is more histrionics than History Channel, more Oprah than opera, and more Obits than Op-Ed.

Unlike the last book I reviewed (Europe and the People without History), Abraham Eraly does not seek to explain the past as a complex totality of economic, political and social factors – far from it. Instead, he merely seeks to “portray life and tell a story” – and not just an ordinary tale, but a saga, a soap opera – an account of the meteoric rise and precipitous decline of a dynasty over six generations. The setting is no less epic than the rugged Hindukush mountains and the windswept plains of Hindustan, from Tuesday 9 June 1494 (“In the month of Ramadan of the year 899”), when a 11-year old Zahiruddin Babur came to the throne of Ferghana, to Friday 3 March 1707, when an octagenarian Aurangzeb breathed his weary last in an army camp in Ahmednagar. You can almost hear the theme music in the background.

The piece of furniture in question - actually a replica, currently in the Golestan Palace in Iran (courtesy http://www.karipearls.com/peacock-throne.html)

In between, Eraly introduces us to his dramatis personae of ten men and one woman in loving detail. Six of them are Emperors. The rest of the characters with meaty speaking roles include one heir apparent who never makes it to the throne (Dara Shukoh), two Hindus (Hemu and Shivaji), one empress (Nurjahan),  and an Afghan (Sher Shah Suri).

These eleven people, aided by a large support cast of nobles, nautch girls, war elephants, European merchants, Rajputs, Marathas and holy men of several denominations, whirl around each other vertiginously, spilling copious quantities of blood, intriguing darkly, living in lavishness and lasciviousness and occasionally spouting poetry of devastating profundity. They build breathtaking palaces and mausoleums, betray one another without compunctions, cavort in drunken orgy, suffer unbearable torments and love with tempestuous ferocity.

While every episode is dramatic, Eraly is at his very best as a raconteur while narrating the fratricidal struggle for the throne in the 1660’s: Shah Jahan, weighed down as much by old age as by the grief of his wife’s demise and the guilt of having murdered his brother and cousins at the time of his own coronation, watches with impotent indignation as his third son, the pious Aurangzeb, swims through a pool of his brothers’ blood to usurp the throne.

Was the fate of a billion Indians determined by minor personality quirks and accidents that altered the course of decisive battles and hence of history itself? What if Dara had not climbed down from his elephant at Samogarh? What if Sher Shah had stood at a safe distance from the exploding grenades during the siege of Kalinjar? What if Mahabat Khan had murdered Jahangir on the banks of Jhelum? Did Aurangzeb really hold a lifelong grudge against Dara Shukoh “for appropriating all their father’s love”, as we are authoritatively assured? And did he actually say, prophetically, and eerily reminiscent of another king in another country, in the not too distant future, “Az ma-st hamah fasad-i-baaqi” (After me, chaos)? Did all these things happen exactly as Eraly depicts?

In fact, right at the outset, before launching with gusto into the narrative, Eraly slips in a quick disclaimer: that he believes it is “in fact, impossible, for man to know the final truth even about any particular event in history, however trivial it might be, for he himself, swirling in time, does not have the perspective to see all its relevant consequences intersecting with the consequences of a myriad other events…

So no – it is probably not all true, just a mishmash of rumor, legend, conjecture, imagination, propaganda, lies and a smattering of what actually happened . But isn’t that what all history, shorn of pretense, actually is? Eraly thinks so. No matter – it’s one heck of a story. Cue music again.

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