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Sunday Storytelling: Three young historians tell tales from the past and make bygones fun again

Ira Mukhoty, Many S. Pillai and Parvati Sharma pen anecdotes that have fascinated them forever, and will pique your curiosity too!

brunch Updated: Nov 04, 2018 01:44 IST
Hindustan Times
authors,history,Ira Mukhoty
(From left) Manu S. Pillai, 28, is a popular columnist in Mint Lounge and his newest book, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji is topping charts; Ira Mukhoty, 48, is a powerful voice for women. Her second book on Mughal Women has been recognised by all as a “sumptuous read” ; Parvati Sharma, 40, wrote The Story of Babur lavishly illustrated with Mughal miniature style paintings, and impressed children and adults alike. Art direction: Veenu Singh. Make-up and hair: Aashmeen Munjaal’s Star Salon n Academy(Raj K Raj)

You detested history in school, yet you’re ready to campaign against the censor board to allow the screening of Padmaavat (2018), irrespective of whether it respects history or not?

You disliked studying about Shivaji in your textbooks, but enjoyed Bajirao Mastani (2017); you didn’t want to do papers on WW II, but contributed to making Churchill a (2017) superhit?

May be it’s not our fault: writers of school books don’t have the finesse of a film director, or the entertainment value.

The good news is that some writers now combine both: the authenticity of research and the skill of joyful storytelling. Ira Mukhoty, Manu S. Pillai and Parvati Sharma are three young best-selling authors (average age between the three = 35 years!) whose take on history is appealing to short-attention spanned millennials.

As a special Diwali treat, HT Brunch asks them to pen one short story each from times gone by, that has the ability to provoke thought, imagination and drive, and invoke a love for history you never thought you’d possess!

Manu, Ira and Parvati are three young best-selling authors ( Raj K Raj )

In good faith
By Manu S. Pillai

Kerala-born Pune boy Manu S. Pillai has authored Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaj. Shirt, T.M. Lewin; trousers, Apsley; shoes, Ruosh ( Raj K Raj )

The similarities between Mughal emperor Akbar and Ibrahim II from the Adil Shahs of Bijapur are colourful and curiously relevant in today’s times…

In the 24th year of Jalal-ud-din Akbar’s reign, a 10-year-old boy was installed on the throne of the Adil Shahs of Bijapur. Ibrahim II was several decades the Mughal emperor’s junior, but if the two had met, they’d have enjoyed each other’s company. Though separated by distance as well as a generation gap, there was a great deal the Mughal badshah and the Deccan sultan had in common. Both were patrons of the arts, and each was a man of ability as well as charisma. And in what is directly relevant to our own times, Akbar and Ibrahim both embraced the plural impulses of the societies over which they reigned, birthing a magnificent age, and lighting a path that still shines centuries after they went to the grave.

While Akbar horrified the conservative with a tika on his forehead, Ibrahim II did the same with the rudraksha around his neck

The horror with which Akbar’s religious views were perceived is well chronicled. But in the shadow of the emperor, Ibrahim languishes forgotten. Like Akbar, he too was a violent man when it came to matters of state. But when battle was done, and a calmer breeze prevailed, his curiosity matched that of the emperor far away. Where Akbar horrified the conservative with a tika on his forehead, Ibrahim did the same with the rudraksha around his neck. Where the emperor welcomed padres at court, in Bijapur too the gates were thrown open for the message of Christ. And while Akbar participated in “heathen” rituals with his Rajput wives, Ibrahim joined his Maratha consort and venerated, besides Ganapati, the goddess Saraswati.

It wasn’t like powerful interests did not disapprove, and both men knew their unorthodox views could provoke trouble. Badauni held Akbar “in defiance and contempt of the true faith”, just as a sufi rushed to “rescue” the Adil Shah from the philosophical embrace of a yogi. Both had to compromise with the conservative. Akbar died swathed in whispers that he was an apostate, and so too went Ibrahim, surrounded by smaller men with narrower minds. Indeed, the Adil Shah felt impelled to ward off attacks on his memory. “No,” his grave read, “Ibrahim in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian”. He was “one pure of faith”, and “never of the idolators.” But even here he played a trick. On the face of it he was bowing to the orthodox. But this was a line from the Quran, and “Ibrahim” could be either the Adil Shah or the Prophet himself – even in death he would not fully concede.

In the shadow of the emperor Akbar, Ibrahim II languishes forgotten

If Akbar and Ibrahim returned to gaze upon our world, they would see, like them, many with minds full of curiosity and spirit – but they would also see, as in their own time, others issuing diktats on what one should think, whom one should obey. Centuries and many ages separate us, but in the story of society, these kings might chuckle, some things clearly never change.

Kerala-born Pune boy Manu S. Pillai has authored Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaj (2018). He won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017 for his book The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (2015), which he wrote over six years after researching in three continents. He has worked with the BBC on their Incarnations history series. He is currently doing his PhD at King’s College London.

Celebrating womanhood
By Ira Mukhoty

Ira Mukhoty has two degrees in Natural Sciences and spent her early life in the historic city of Delhi. Shirt, Nicobar; jeans Calvin Klein; shoes, Hyde & Co. ( Raj K Raj )

Just like Babur’s sister Khanzada Begum, the bracing attitude towards women who were divorced, widowed or fallen to an enemy and realising intrinsic worth beyond just their chastity, is a valuable lesson to us at present

When Babur Mirza made his precipitous exit from the fabled city of Samrakhand five hundred years ago at the point of Shaibani Khan Uzbeg’s sword, he had to leave behind a hostage, his elder sister Khanzada Begum, to safeguard his life and his eviction from the history of Transoxiana. That this ‘marriage’ was against the will of the Timurids is evident from the halting, uncertain way in which it will be reported by later writers. Babur himself, usually so expansively unselfconscious in his biography, will hesitate when writing about this clearly shameful episode; ‘It had to be done,’ he writes morosely, but Mirza Haidar, writing later, is more unsparing – ‘Babar Padishah gave up Khanzada Begum in exchange for his own life, and escaped.’

Babur’s elder sister Khanzada Begum spent 10 years married to Shaibani Khan, during which he grew tired of her vaunting the merits of her brother

That women have been used to subjugate and humiliate men in times of war is as old as the history of men and war itself. What was surprising to me about this anecdote was what followed the capture of Khanzada Begum. Babur’s elder sister spent about 10 years married to Shaibani Khan, during which time he grew increasingly tired of her incessant vaunting of the merits of her Timurid family and her beloved brother Babur. Then in 1510, Shaibani was defeated by Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid empire, and his skull rather satisfyingly transformed into a jewelled drinking goblet. Shah Ismail gallantly returned Khanazada Begum, with honour, to Babur Mirza in Kunduz.

At the court of Babur his elder sister, Khanzada Begum, was treated with the greatest deference and honour ( Photo courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum )

At the court of Babur in Kunduz and then in Kabul, Khanzada Begum was treated with the very greatest deference and honour and was given the most exalted title that the Timurids reserved for the most respected woman of the harem – Padshah Begum. Throughout her long and adventurous life, she was entrusted with the most delicate and challenging tasks – maintaining the peace between warring brothers and safeguarding the Timurid legacy. She was venerated both for her own extraordinary qualities of endurance and bravery and for the ‘sacrifice’ she made for the life of Babur. There was never any trace of any imagined shame associated with her forced marriage to a loathed enemy. On the contrary, she was visibly celebrated.

This gruff pragmatism of the Timurids towards the sexual vulnerability of royal women in turbulent times was a trait that many of the Mughal Padshahs displayed. They placed no undue importance on the sexual chastity of a woman. Divorced women, widows, and women who had ‘fallen’ to an enemy were encouraged to remarry if they so wished. This bracing attitude towards women, an acknowledgement of their intrinsic worth beyond just their chastity, is a valuable lesson to us even today, while we redefine the boundaries around women’s freedom, their dreams and their ambitions.

Ira Mukhoty has two degrees in Natural Sciences and spent her early life in the historic city of Delhi, which generated an interest in mythology and history. She has written on culture as well as travel for various magazines and her books include Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire (2018) and Heroines: Powerfu Indian Women of Myth and History (2017).

Being a home bird
By Parvati Sharma

Parvati Sharma’s newest book is Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal. Kurta Khaadi Pret; jeans, Vero Moda; shoes, Foot-Loose ( Raj K Raj )

Be it Babur’s fondness for melons from his kingdom and valley of birth or Jahangir’s partiality towards mangoes from his city of childhood, the one thing that resonates as a universal truth is that, nothing can match the taste of home!

Everyone knows Babur loved melons. Having galloped through the dusty plains of Panipat, in 1526, decimating Ibrahim Lodi’s army, Babur wrote of how he missed the cool, delicately flavoured fruit, which had long been his joy, both in Kabul, his kingdom, and Fergana, the valley of his birth. Though some attempted to entice him with the great fruit of the subcontinent, the mango, Babur wasn’t impressed. He admitted that yes, a good mango could indeed be very good, but to say that mangoes ranked near melons in taste? That was going too far. Mangoes were ‘not so good as to warrant such praise’.

For Babar, saying that mangoes ranked near melons in taste was going too far, but his great-grandson Jahangir revealed himself a truly desi mango aficionado

Some 80 odd years after Babur came to India, his great-grandson Jahangir inherited his throne. A lot had happened in these eight decades. Babur had died not five years after his conquests. Humayun, his son, had lost his father’s gains, spent years in exile, then managed to gain a foothold in Hindustan only to fall down some stairs and lose his life. Humayun’s son, Akbar, was barely in his teens when his father died. And yet, blessed with that rare combination of genius and good luck, the young heir raised an equally fledgling kingdom into an Empire. When Jahangir – Akbar’s eldest son, born to a Rajput queen – became emperor, the Mughal realm was among the most rich and powerful in the world.

Early in his reign, Jahangir visited Kabul. Not only was Babur buried here, many of the city’s beautiful gardens and pavilions were built by Jahangir’s ancestors – uncles, grandmothers, great-aunts – so the trip was almost a pilgrimage. The new emperor enjoyed Kabul, and, of course, its fruits. Apricots, peaches, grapes. Cherries, of which he once ate 150 at a go. And yet, he wrote – and this is my anecdote – ‘The excellence of the fruits of Kabul notwithstanding, not one is as delicious as the mango in my opinion’. Later, in fact, he would reveal himself a truly desi mango aficionado, with all our distinctive parochialism about the fruit. Though mangoes from across Hindustan were brought to Jahangir, the ones he liked best were from the orchards of Chapramau, near Agra, the city of his childhood.

Jahangir, born in a month of monsoon, raised in the heart of north India, was enamoured of the golden fruit of Hindustani summer

There is much debate these days about whether or not the Mughals were sufficiently ‘Indian’. Are they ‘foreign invaders’ eternally? Does Jahangir’s Rajput blood buy him Indian ‘nationality’? To me, however, the switch from melons to mangoes says all that needs to be said on the subject. Everyone knows Babur loved the crisp flavours of the temperate climes in which he lived his life. Jahangir, born in a month of monsoon, raised in the heart of North India, was equally enamoured of the golden fruit of Hindustani summer.

Nothing, after all, can match the taste of home.

Parvati Sharma’s newest book is Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal. While her debut novel is Close to Home (2014), The Story of Babur (2015) is her first book for children and The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love (2010) is her short story collection. She’s studied English literature and Indian history, travelled extensively and has worked as a travel writer, editor and journalist.

From HT Brunch, November 4, 2018

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First Published: Nov 04, 2018 00:41 IST