Empire of the Moghul: The Serpent’s Tooth
Emperor Shah Jahan is in mourning. The wife of his life (he has a few) and ever-fertile Mumtaz Mahal has delivered her fourteenth child and died. Like she did throughout her life, she accompanied him to the Deccan as he fought against the rebels from Bijapur and Golconda. On the deathbed, she implores her husband to not marry again as it will trigger discord among his progeny. Her last words invoke their immortal love. Shah Jahan is shattered but wants to commemorate her memory in monumental fashion. The idea of the Taj Mahal is seeded.
On his return after a Pyrrhic victory in the Deccan, Shah Jahan is a haunted and disturbed man. Sleep evades him for weeks. Mumtaz visits him in dreams. To banish the grief he dips opium into a potion and drinks it – it’s the sleeping pill of its time. In this haze, Jahan Ara, the emperor’s eldest daughter and adviser enters his bedroom. The scent she wears is similar to Mumtaz’s. Shah Jahan mistakes her for Mumtaz and lets loose his lust. He gropes her breasts and rips off her clothes. She screams, but the emperor has deceived himself into thinking that it’s foreplay. She runs for the exit and while doing so her garments catch fire from a lamp in the corridor. In seconds, she is up in flames. She is saved, but has life-threatening burns. Shah Jahan comes to his senses. The agony of loving Mumtaz is one thing; the guilt of unconsciously raping your own daughter, another.
In Empire of the Moghul: The Serpent’s Tooth, Alex Rutherford displays all the qualities that have been the hallmark of the series. The prose is athletic, the action never lags, and descriptions of wars are dramatic. Unlike the other four books in the series, where Rutherford kept off bazaar gossip about Mughal royalty, here he has indulged in it.
In the first instalment, Raiders from the North, Rutherford narrated the rise of Babur and his bonding with Baburi. Babur, it is believed, was totally smitten by the much younger man Baburi, and their friendship may not have been just platonic. There were rumours about Shah Jahan and Jahan Ara as well. In the current work, Rutherford has utilised the historical fictionist’s carte blanche to vivify the gaps of the past.
The equation between Shah Jahan and Jahan Ara gets into territory that may have found the author trampled underfoot by the Mughal infantry if he had written it during the epoch it happened. By getting into what may have transpired between Shah Jahan and Jahan Ara, Rutherford makes them more plausible as people.
Shah Jahan lords over this chronicle as he did over his empire. His perspective gives the book its register. For a novelist, Rutherford writes like a crack reporter covering war from the front lines. He exhibits genuine passion for savagery and, occasionally, lust.
Some battles make up whole chapters. Over a dozen fight sequences, no one scene uses the same descriptors as others. A soldier’s head is chopped but the torso remains still for a moment, like an afterthought. Pilloried traitors watch the toes of the elephant that will crush them. A rebel soldier’s horse is shot, his leg gets trapped in the stirrup and his head gets smashed from rock to rock as the horse runs for what remains of its life. Rutherford has threaded the needle by evoking a Shah Jahan as brutal as he is giving. Both sides of his persona linger on, like Mumtaz Mahal’s fragrances. But the lusting Shah Jahan beats the loving Shah Jahan for this reader.
By Rahul Jayram on August 16 2013 7.41am