I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction lately – in the last few months, I’ve read six novels about the Mughals, so I thought it would be fun to do a comparative review of all six together.
On the one hand, there are the first three books of the six-part Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford (though it’s the collective pen name of Michael and Diana Preston, I will treat them as this one entity for my review). Each book tells the story of a Mughal ruler – Babur, Humayun, and Akbar –respectively. From the time young Babur becomes the king of Ferghana to how, through multiple raids and failed attempts, and seemingly endless hardships, he finally establishes the Mughal empire; from Humayun’s obsession with astrology to Jahangir’s attempts to claim the throne even while Akbar rules, Rutherford’s books provide a compelling account of court politics and conquest.
On the other hand, Indu Sundaresan’s Taj Trilogy – consisting of The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, and Shadow Princess – takes the reader beyond the battlefield and court, straight into the heart of the empire – the zenana. The first two books centre around Mehrunnisa, from her childhood as the daughter of one of Akbar’s courtiers to how she negotiates her position as Empress Nur Jahan, the most powerful woman in Mughal history. Shadow Princess, set in the period just after Mumtaz Mahal’s death, simultaneously tells of the sudden change in Jahanara’s life as she shoulders the responsibility of her father Shah Jahan’s zenana; Aurangzeb’s hunger for power; and the building of the Taj Mahal.
By writing Mughal history from the perspective of its women, Sundaresan’s books seem to follow a simple, powerful idea: harem politics drive court politics. While the first two are pretty gripping accounts of Mehrunnisa’s rise to power and her equally stunning fall, the third book, somehow, failed to match up to them. To my mind, a story must have at least one character worth loving and supporting, and here, there are none. Jahanara’s inflated sense of self and her constant bemoaning of a fate that she brought on herself are tiresome. Her siblings, too, come across as variations of selfish, weak, bratty, or rigid. Then, the equations, both personal and political, are not explained convincingly enough – for example, why, after Mumtaz’s death, power is transferred, unquestioned, to Jahanara instead of another empress; and the slight hint of an incestuous relationship between Jahanara and her father, which is never fully explored. Also, the constant evocation of “The Luminous Tomb” and repeated descriptions of its construction and architecture are often dry and wearying.
Why Sundaresan’s books still score over Rutherford’s is because, in dealing more with personal relationships, they often provide a clearer understanding of why certain events unfold the way they do (see note). For example, the reason for Akbar’s decision to give Khurram to his wife Ruqayya is clearly outlined – Ruqayya wants to reduce Jagat Gosini’s power by taking away her son and the future heir to the throne. In Rutherford’s series, the episode is skimmed over with no convincing explanation. Another problem with Rutherford’s books is that they are often long-winded, peppered with irrelevant anecdotes – such as the attack on Salim’s entourage to Kabul after the Anarkali episode – that have no bearing on future events.
Both series suffer from over-Anglicization of language, which often results in jerky, stilted, and sometimes incredibly jarring conversation. This is especially true of Rutherford’s books, in which the use of "Moghul" instead of "Mughal", the first-person use of “Mother”, “Father”, “Aunt” etc, and Baburi telling Babur that he has fallen for the Persian Shah’s “pwetty pwetty” words, were just ridiculous and left me thoroughly unimpressed.
Overall, though I’m still looking forward to rest of Empire of the Moghul, it’s Sundaresan’s novels that I’ll go back to for a good story.
Note: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is deciding what to fictionalize and how factually accurate to be. Of course, both writers have taken their own liberties with history, often ending up with different accounts of the same incident, so my review is based on which is more convincing and fits in better with the rest of the story.