Human face of emperors
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

Empire of the Moghul: The Tainted Throne
By Alex Rutherford. Headline Review. Pages 438. Rs 599

First came William Dalrymple, then Alex Rutherford. While the former used primary sources, not considered important by stiff-necked historians, to bring to life civil and common society, Alex Rutherford, the pseudonym of Diana and Michael Preston, has brilliantly interpreted the character and motivations of emperors from the Mughal dynasty.

The Tainted Throne is the fourth in series of the Empire of the Moghul, and as readable as the other three. After having explored the ambition and the unshakeable faith in the destiny that was the hallmark of Babur and brilliantly dallying in the humane flaws of Humayun, the author had delineated in the building of a magnificent empire by Akbar wherein one also saw the first signs of the tensions that power creates between fathers and sons.

If Raiders From The North was only about the destiny of Babur, The Brother At War about Humayun and his ambitious and treacherous brothers and Ruler of the World about empire building and obsession with power. The Tainted Throne is not just about Jahangir but also about his relationship with his sons and the ambition of Nur Jahan, who wields and exercises power through others. The book recreates the reign of Jahangir from available sources and is, like the earlier books, embellished by the imaginative use of the creative license, to lend a human face to the drama of power, passion and pathos.

Such liberties may be frowned upon by academic historians but since they belong to the realm of historical fiction, they help in appreciating the main characters much better. The book opens with the clash between the armies of Emperor Jahangir and his son Khusrau Mirza. The writer does not shy away from the gory details of the savagery of the torture to which the vanquished are subjected. However, readers from North India will surely question the absence of any reference to the treatment meted out to Guru Arjan Dev in the context of Khusrau Mirza’s rebellion, for it marks the beginning of a conflict that was to ultimately hasten the demise of the most powerful empire of the world.

The detail in which the harem life, including the description of the hamams, speaks volumes of the research done by the author. Indiscretions in the harem are severely and violently punished but too much attention to them somewhat takes away the focus of the much more gripping drama that is unfolding amidst the splendour and violence. Clearly, the author finds Mehrunissa fascinating, a woman of exceptional qualities and much ahead of her limiting times. In a more tolerant age, she might have upstaged her husband to directly wield power. Her becoming the queen and then the gradual rise of her ambition, which coincides with the rise of Khurram, the Prince and her niece’s husband, could have been given more space for rarely does an aunt surrender the exalted place that she comes to occupy and when threatened, the mind resorts to such devious means that ultimately the wielder demeans herself.

However, with all his flaws, having endured a torturous relationship with his father, the pain and injustice of which continues to haunt him when facing a recalcitrant Khurram, Jahangir appears more humane, repentant of his past and often eager to build a bridge to the past by reaching out to future. However, like the Greek tragedies, there is no escape from crimes that are committed against nature and thus with each succeeding generation the violence and the sin grows with multiplier force and Khurram, the Shah Jahan marks the beginning of his reign with deeds that would legitimise a war among his progeny, the consequences of which would ultimately eat at the vitals of the Mughals.

In all his books, Alex Rutherford has brought the human face of the Mughal emperors. It would be interesting to see what he does with the character and motives of Aurangzeb, if a fifth book in the series is planned.