Review: Vagabond Princess by Ruby Lal - Hindustan Times

Review: Vagabond Princess by Ruby Lal

ByHuzan Tata
Apr 13, 2024 05:24 AM IST

A portrait of Gulbadan Begum, author of the Humayun-nama, and the only woman historian of any medieval Islamic dynasty

Ruby Lal has lived with the story of Gulbadan for over 20 years. Debuting with the book Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World in 2005, the author’s last work, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan was widely read and critically acclaimed. It’s easy to see why she picked the story of a strong medieval princess for her latest book. Very little is known about Gulbadan Begum – Emperor Babur’s daughter, Humayun’s half-sister and Akbar’s aunt – a royal who lived through almost seven decades of Mughal rule and had a role to play through every generation. Lal’s latest, that uses Gulbadan’s own written work as a primary source, pieces together a portrait of the Mughal princess who commanded respect as a guardian of the empire, and as the only woman historian of her dynasty.

Gulbadan Begum smoking a hukkah. (Wikimedia Commons)
Gulbadan Begum smoking a hukkah. (Wikimedia Commons)

248pp, ₹699; Juggernaut Books
248pp, ₹699; Juggernaut Books

Vagabond Princess opens with an account of the author’s search for a copy of Gulbadan’s “stellar book”, the Ahval-i Humayun Badshah (Conditions in the Age of Humayun Badshah), also known as the Humayun-nama. Written at Akbar’s request, the book remains the only prose historical account by a woman of any medieval Islamic empire. Lal’s passion for her subject shines through every one of the 200 pages of Gulbadan’s story, and as the chapters travel through Mughal lives and times, the intricate detailing and the vivid writing keep the reader engrossed. Particularly engaging are the chapters on her life during Emperor Humayun’s exile after he loses his dominion to Sher Shah Suri, and on her journey to Mecca.

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The first sixteenth-century Islamic royal woman to lead a Hajj congregation to the holy city by ship, Gulbadan stayed on in Arabia for over four years and only left when orders to return came straight from the ruler. Journeying through several regions during her time there, she had enjoyed her return to a life on the road, one that she sorely missed within the walls of Akbar’s court. Her longing for the peripatetic life after the empire stabilises is mentioned often (“The freedom of movement in the mansions along the Yamuna in which she came of age was lost to the past”).

Lal’s detailed descriptions of humans, emotions and places are never dry or lengthy, and bring alive the era and the locales. Here is an account of the princess’ first glimpse of the Islamic holy site: “The wide-open quad with the Ka’ba where Gulbadan stood had been so for centuries, inviting everyone to step into the holy precincts and garner blessings. This was the House of God – the most ancient harem. How brilliantly Gulbadan’s nephew Akbar had extracted the sacred vision of this original harem and its utter sanctity for the first red sandstone harem for his women. And yet, in creating his sacrosanct arrangements, he ended up robbing his women, notably those of Gulbadan’s generation, of the vagabond nature within them. This thought likely occurred to the princess – but she would turn from the thought.”

Portrait of a Mughal woman (Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Portrait of a Mughal woman (Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Other outstanding Mughal women from Gulbadan’s generation and those that went before also pique the reader’s interest. There are glimpses of Isan Daulat, Babur’s grandmother, who served as his advisor at important times, his sister Khanzada, who was married off to his rival Shaibani Khan, his fifth wife, Mubarika, and of Humayun’s headstrong wife, Hamida. Incidentally, Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun (2018) also threw light on the lives of these forgotten women. The intelligence and inherent strength of the Mughal women and his appreciation of Gulbadan’s keen intellect was what probably prompted Akbar to ask his aunt to write a record of the Mughal empire. As it turned out, her book was a “chronicle suffused with feeling”, something that cannot be said of the writing of male historians of the time. Gulbadan does not write much about her own husband and children and barely touches on her own life – Lal tells us that her writing focused on humanising the royals around her, on heartbreak and conquest, and on power and love. Particularly poignant is the princess’ yearning for time with her father, Babur.

Author Ruby Lal (Danish Saroee/Courtesy the publisher)
Author Ruby Lal (Danish Saroee/Courtesy the publisher)

Vagabond Princess goes beyond the linear life story of a Mughal princess and reminds us that some elite women have weilded power across eras even without handling weapons or commanding armies. They were the backbones of dynasties, truly respected by those on the throne, and like Gulbadan, used their power in unique ways. This biography is a notable and moving account of an extraordinary Mughal daughter and an exemplary historian.

Huzan Tata is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

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