(Published in The Hindu, 17 November 2019)
In his epilogue in Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, Avik Chanda quotes a stranger he encountered in Delhi. They were at the Humayun’s Tomb complex, where, next to peripheral graves, sits one purportedly belonging to the tragic Mughal prince, Dara Shukoh. Emperor Shahjahan’s intended heir and Aurangzeb’s nemesis, this Darius of his age towers over popular imagination, projected as a superior, “secular” alternative to a wicked, villainous sibling. Dara lost the war of succession and his head to his enemy, but as the stranger declares to the author, “To one whom history has given refuge, what harm can an [Aurangzeb] cause?”
Dara was a fascinating man, his story provoking to this day speculation on how the Mughals might have fared had he, not Aurangzeb, prevailed. “Paradise is where no mullah exists,” he wrote, and under his patronage Sanskrit texts were translated into Persian, by which medium they would reach makers of the Enlightenment. Like Akbar before, Dara too conferred with thinkers beyond the pale, seeking to discover a universalism underpinning every religion in his day. He was not, admittedly, the first to initiate such an effort, but his pronounced urbanity led Abraham Eraly to suggest that in some respects, he was perhaps far too civilized for his age.
Chanda approaches Dara with a large measure of admiration and not a little romance. His language, to begin with, is excellent, and now and then there are sentences which stand out. (“A teardrop fell on a bead of pearl in her necklace, and for a flickering liquid instant, became its double.”) The sources he cites pass muster, and the attractive pace at which the story is told, means it is no surprise that the book has won much advance praise, including from scholars like Richard Eaton. Chanda keeps his focus firmly on Dara, steering clear of today’s politics (after all, even the RSS approves of this Mughal) and of demonising Aurangzeb. The sum is that the book will appeal to many, who will also appreciate the author’s considerable effort.
But there are also jarring moments and academic weaknesses in Chanda’s approach to Dara’s tale. Every now and then fictional dialogues pepper the book’s pages, which may engage some readers but quite aggravated this reviewer. So we have Shahjahan declare: “That damn Shah has his sights on Qandahar again! He must now be taught a lesson!” Before he becomes king, when Shahjahan rebels against his father, a scene is constructed in which Dara sees him with “matted hair”—an unlikely proposition given that military camps were well appointed with luxuries, making them far from a stint in an unwashed wilderness.
Factual errors also appear. We are told, for example, that Mughal princesses were forbidden from marrying—an enduring inaccuracy. Certainly, women like Dara’s siblings Jahanara and Roshanara, who wielded great power at court, chose not to marry and surrender their vast influence. But the daughters of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, and Jahangir were married, sometimes twice. Similarly, when Aurangzeb harasses Bijapur in the 1650s, its ruler, the Adil Shah, appeals to Dara for relief. Chanda calls this sultan Adil Shah II, whereas he was the eighth of the Adil Shahs—the confusion perhaps emerging from his name, Ali II.
Minor errors, however, plague all books, so these do not inflict extraordinary damage. What is, however, puzzling is how the myth of Dara as an otherworldly prince is perpetuated in the first half of the book, only to be abruptly jettisoned in the next. During durbar proceedings, we read, “Dara’s mind would wander to a verse he had read that morning, a painting, or some lingering question of philosophy…After two hours, he was in a realm far way from these courtly surroundings.” So too: “Dreamy and distant, the prince sat beside his father, gradually becoming oblivious to the proceedings”. Chanda’s Dara despises brutality, abhors men of war and politics, and constantly exalts spirituality.
Dara was certainly inclined to mysticism, but this was linked more to his own expected kingly destiny and self-image, and less to divorce himself from reality. In actual fact, as Chanda himself later shows, he feuded with courtiers on very political questions, used his influence over their father to thwart Aurangzeb, and showed himself more than capable of ambition—this was not a man disinterested in the court’s business. His verses, as with historical writings generally, must be read critically. Even Jahanara was a Sufi, described as a fakira. That did not, however, mean she eschewed imperial prerogatives: she enjoyed formidable revenues from the port of Surat, and when Shivaji was arrested, Jahanara was among those demanding prompt punishment. The fakira was furious with the Maratha hero for sacking Surat, and causing her loss of money and prestige.
So too, Dara was a poet and intellectual, but he was also a man of the world, and very much a royal Mughal. It is true that he was an incompetent general, a terrible judge of character, and profoundly unlucky, having spent much of his life cocooned at court. Equally, in some respects he soared above his contemporaries. But by no means was he the dreamy prince of popular imagination. This, then, becomes the principal flaw in an otherwise lovingly developed biography: the author’s difficulty in fully separating romance from critical analysis. For while the historical Dara does make promising appearances in Chanda’s pages, the mythical Dara still, ultimately, dominates.