Review: Conversations with Aurangzeb by Charu Nivedita - Hindustan Times

Review: Conversations with Aurangzeb by Charu Nivedita

BySudhirendar Sharma
Apr 24, 2024 01:29 PM IST

A genre-bending novel that contributes to our understanding of history even as it sharpens our view of the present

Historical events need to be placed in context. Otherwise, over time, opinion will distort facts to suit ideological predispositions. The subject of history has been a casualty of biases in recent times and Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor who reigned the longest, has suffered the most as a result. Should the trend persist, his half century of rule will remain fodder for promoting divisive ideologies for several more centuries.

Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr. (Wikimedia Commons)
Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr. (Wikimedia Commons)

355pp, ₹599; HarperCollins
355pp, ₹599; HarperCollins

Despite being known to have built temples for various Hindu communities, Aurangzeb continues to be discredited for destroying only temples. He is vilified for taxing people to amass wealth; that he lived off the prayer caps he sold is wilfully allowed to pass. Even Francis Bernier’s impression that “the king governed his subjects with equity and impartiality” hasn’t changed the general negative opinion about Aurangzeb. Given that his rule lasted so long, he must have evolved from an aggressive king to a pragmatic ruler. Much has been written on him but nowhere has the possible transformation of a ruler ever been considered.

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History is always written by the victor. The case of Aurangzeb, however, shows just the opposite. With a city and many roads named after him already erased from the map, efforts to expunge his name from the history books is a work in progress. Indeed, had it not been for his long stint as emperor, he would have been labelled a fringe ruler many centuries ago. Few even consider that he too may have been affected by circumstances that were beyond his control. It is here that Conversations with Aurangzeb by Charu Nivedita steps in, allowing the long-dead Mughal to clear several misconceptions about himself.

Based on facts but written as a genre-bending novel, the narrative positions history to counter the ideological impulses of our time. Ably translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, the book uses a distinctive form of storytelling that is both funny and reflective. The tale begins with an aghori summoning the spirit of Aurangzeb into his body. The spirit then introduces itself: “I, Alamgir, born Aurangzeb, have come before you” and states that it wishes to clear misinformation about the emperor. The spirit lets it be known that the ruler’s life could be divided into three distinct sections in accordance with his age – 40 to 50, 50 to 85, and 85 to 90 – and that each reflected a different persona.

Such is the narrative strength of Charu Nivedita’s fact-filled story that it will find favour neither with the chest-thumping right wing nor with self-proclaimed liberals – a feat in itself. Aurangzeb’s spirit concurs with noted historian Jadunath Sarkar that his life was a Greek tragedy. In making a case for drawing lessons from his life, the spirit asks the reader to connect the past with the present in an unbiased assessment of history. Consequently, the book is quite alarming in places.

Author Charu Nivedita (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Charu Nivedita (Courtesy the publisher)

The spirit doesn’t shy away from admitting that it had sinned a great deal in its 90 years on earth. Aurangzeb was not “secular” in any sense and readers can be anguished by his actions whether they were impelled by his own ideas or carried out due to political compunctions. The novel’s strength lies in how it allows the reader to understand that things haven’t changed all that much on the Indian subcontinent with an outward show of religiosity being a social and political virtue even today. It holds up a mirror to justifications provided for wrong doings in our own time. If lust for power is what Aurangzeb has been accused of, his spirit asks if the lust for money, power and blood is any less prevalent in the present time.

A complicated but interesting undertaking to dispassionately view a grossly misunderstood subject, this work of historical fiction manages to also be a satire. Conversations with Aurangzeb contributes to our understanding of history even as it delivers a biting commentary on our times.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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