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ONCE UPON A TIME

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War
By Alex Rutherford,
Headline, Rs 495

In What is History? E.H.Carr points out the tricky relationship between a historian and the historical facts he deals with. Carr stresses that a historian must be an imaginative interpreter of available facts, and that the “past” of history is only retrievable through “the eyes of the present”; a historical text is always a construct. In historical fiction, the author must calculate the extent to which he needs to dovetail fact with fiction. As Georg Lukács opines, “What matters is that we should re- experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality.”

After the 1970s, critics were also concerned with the treatment of temporality in a text of history or a historical novel. The Bulgarian researcher, N. Gueorguiev, points out two layers of temporality in a historical novel. The first is “transhistorical” or contemporary. The second, which indicates the temporal distance between the reader and the time in which the novel is set, introduces various semantic and stylistic features. In A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon writes, “fiction and history are narratives distinguished by their frames, frames which historiographic metafiction first establishes and then crosses, positing both the generic contracts of fiction and history”.

When discussing a historical novel, we should attempt to locate it within the matrix of such discourse in order to analyze how the author constructs the past, the truths he negotiates, and how he ‘refracts’ (in the Bakhtinian sense of the term) his subjectivity into his period of study. The Mughal period has been an obsession for many novelists and Alex Rutherford is one of them. His latest novel is a sequel to Empire of the Moghul : Raiders from the North, which dealt with the early days of Mughal rule. The story of the sequel begins in 1530 in Agra. The great Babur is dead. His son, Humayun, realizes that he has ascended a throne of blood. The Mughal dynasty did not follow a rigid law of succession. Wars among brothers were a routine affair, fratricide was common.

This cruel truth is captured in the epigraph, which is taken from Humayun Nama, written by Gulbadan Begum, Humayun’s half-sister: “If you wish to be king, put brotherly sentiment aside…This is no brother! This is your Majesty’s foe!” This advice had been given to Humayun by a group of noblemen and soldiers when the emperor’s half-brother, Mirza Kamran, was brought captive before him. Kamran had once coveted the throne and banished Humayun. The emperor hesitated before taking any stern action, but eventually gave the command to blind Kamran.

Rutherford’s narrative opens with the sense of impending disaster that clouds Humayun’s mind. This is not the Humayun of bellicose Timurid blood but a solitude-loving man who understands the transience of power. Here the author’s modern subjectivity is refracted in history.

In Rutherford’s chronicle, the sky-gazing, opium-eating Humayun inhabits a Mughal world of “horrifying but magnificent savagery”. He depicts Humayun’s martial skills, stresses on his powers of strategy, and also explores his moments of anguish. This is in tune with the Lukácian “historical reality”. The narrative displays no metafictional diversion or subversion in the Hutcheonian sense. Rutherford’s language has delicate tonal variations, ranging from the robust to the suavely lyrical. This makes the novel’s “reality” come alive in all its vitality and grandeur.

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