Review: Parvati Sharma’s ‘Akbar of Hindustan’

(Published in The Hindu, 10 July 2022)

Parvati Sharma’s Akbar of Hindustan is an exercise in delight. The author writes with great charm and wit, rarely letting the narrative flag, and produces an attractive, well-researched biography of one of the best-known figures in Indian history. I must confess I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would like the book, given that the Mughals in general can sometimes seem tedious — they command endless hair-splitting analysis, often to the prejudice of other interesting subjects in Indian history. But partly because Akbar is such a profoundly compelling figure, and because Sharma applies her pen so expertly in telling his tale, I enjoyed the book, waiving, momentarily, my petty grudge against the Mughals. And if I went into Akbar prepared at best for a pleasant but somewhat predictable rehash of information, I emerged a little surprised.

Part of this is due to a running thread Sharma uses throughout the book, juxtaposing two vivid but dramatically contrasting accounts left by Akbar’s contemporaries. The histories produced by Abul Fazl and Badauni are principal source materials in all studies on the man, but Sharma skilfully places the excessive adulation of the former alongside acidic disapproval from the latter to reconstruct Akbar in his many shades. So, if Abul Fazl’s Akbar is a divine being, who even as a toddler spouts lessons in wisdom, Badauni tells of a man who could break into expletives of a roadside variety, had a megalomaniacal streak, and was blessed by satanic luck, not god. But Sharma doesn’t just make playful use of these two key chronicles; through them she also explores how the king as an institution was projected and meant to be remembered, while all at once the man wearing the crown struggled to balance this ideal against his own limitations, as well as the uncertainties of politics.

The narrative in Akbar follows a standard chronology, but a good portion at the start (55 pages out of the 325 of text) takes us through the world of the emperor’s predecessors, setting the stage, as it were, for his grand entry. Except, of course, as Sharma reminds us, the entry looks grand mostly in retrospect: in Akbar’s early career, he was one of several pieces on a chessboard with strong contenders, and there was no guarantee that this teenager would end up as more than a blip in the larger scheme of things. The launch of what would become the awe-inspiring Mughal Empire featured perilous roads, defeat, starvation, and moments of such desperation that Akbar’s father once physically chased after a warlord to prevent the man from abandoning him. Power was a fickle substance, and even Akbar at his mightiest did not possess it on absolute terms — when Abul Fazl, who was also a close friend, was murdered, not even this greatest of the six ‘Great Mughals’ could bring the killer to justice.

Sharma’s book in a sense is also a means to reflect on how much difference a ‘great’ man could realistically make through will and persona, and how much also depended on processes outside his control. That Akbar shaped key moments through sheer personal energy, courage, bravado, and perhaps even bluster, is not to be doubted. But equally he was no free agent: there was a vast web of alliances and power interests, ranging from palace women and ‘milk brothers’ to chieftains and personal attendants. The court had to carefully manage space for Central Asian associates of the emperor’s grandfather, Timurid cousins, Rajputs, Hindustani Muslims, wives and aunts, and Persian immigrants — sometimes some of these might coalesce into a formidable faction united by religion or ethnicity to check others, while on occasion political interests fostered unity so that, as a poet wrote, the ‘sword of Islam’ might actually be wielded on the emperor’s behalf by his Hindu vassals.

As much as violence was routine in the age, sometimes it was also orchestrated to neutralise threats bubbling up elsewhere: like others who have explored Akbar, Sharma too, for example, attempts to understand why he ordered a massacre of thousands of civilians in Chittorgarh. The simple answer is that regardless of the emperor’s personal views, political contingencies demanded bloodshed at that moment. This instinct — so visible in kings — also equally meant that when needed Akbar had Muslim clerics drowned or strangled. He used Jesuits from Goa to goad conservative mullahs, while also scandalising people like Badauni by blending a range of Hindu and Jain customs in the palace. What mattered, as Sharma shows, was not which god best appealed to the king; on the contrary it was the centrality of the king himself that was supreme, and all religions were seized on to burnish Akbar’s vision of kingship.

The picture Sharma paints of Akbar as a man is gripping: prone to recklessness, given to self-belief of astonishing proportions, this was a person whose interests straddled everything from watching goldsmiths at work to theological debate. Akbar’s prudish view of homosexuality (in a time when same-sex love was not unusual among elite men), the absence of romance in his life (despite the presence of many wives), and his boundless energy all come across marvellously well. So too does his human fragility: by the end we see Akbar increasingly lonely, though politically he is at his peak. His phenomenal self-assurance fades with the realisation of his own mortality. But that is precisely why Akbar remains endearing: for all the superlatives Abul Fazl heaped on him, he was also, like us, a mortal who felt the full force of human emotions. By shining a light on the many sides of this emperor — and in a book just the right length — Sharma has produced a winner. Read Akbar; you won’t be disappointed.