Reviewed by Mansoor Murad
Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar, arguably the greatest of the Mughal rulers, was probably the world’s most famous non-diagnosed dyslexic. Throughout his life, he was unable to read and, depending on historic source, could either not write at all or only very little. As a result, there is no archive of letters or writings by Akbar, which would have been invaluable in revealing his thoughts at crucial moments in his reign. Into this void tries to step The Emperor’s Writings, a novel presented as a fictionalised ‘autobiography’ of Akbar by Dirk Collier. Meticulously researched and immaculately written, it takes the reader into a world beyond the Bollywood treatment many of us are more familiar with.
Aware of his own mortality and estranged from his irresponsible son, Salim, who refuses to avail himself of his father’s advice, Akbar tries to reach out to him by resorting to the written word. In order to do so, he learns to write in secret, overcoming his dyslexia in the hope of saving his legacy.
Akbar talks about the entirety of his reign, from taking over the throne after a freak accident resulted in the death of his father, the emperor Humayun, and the years spent in consolidating his hold on power and expanding his empire. Large portions are dedicated to his views on governance, his philosophical perspectives and private life. The volume is also interspersed with the writings of other important characters in Akbar’s court; these serve to flesh out Akbar’s story and add in details which the aging emperor was perhaps reluctant to share with his son himself, or not privy to.
Well researched, the book is consistent with the large body of material available on Akbar, vitally that which was written during, and shortly after, his reign. Chief among these are the Ain-i-Akbari and Akbarnama, whose language and cadences also heavily influence the language of the book. The official language of Akbar’s court was Persian, and thus the roman transliterations also take into account Persian spellings and pronunciations. This can initially be disorienting for a reader whose first language is Urdu as the spellings seem “wrong”. However, one gets used to it after a few pages, and this then adds to the authentic feel of the book.
Those whose knowledge of Akbar is, (like mine), dominated by Dilip Kumar, will find this volume a profoundly illuminating experience. For example, it seems that Akbar never had a wife called Jodha, and the lady who sired his son Salim was not from Jodhpur at all! And that although Birbal may have been a wise mind and a brilliant wit, he was a rubbish soldier. These and many other nuggets of knowledge await the reader in this volume, whose bulk is a necessary evil when it comes to capturing a life as wide as that of Akbar’s.
Being written ostensibly by the man himself, the volume naturally skims over those parts of Akbar’s life which were less than stellar. In terms of telling the whole story, this does leave a blank, but it seems a necessary sacrifice in order to remain true to the narrative, which is a dying man’s final bequest to his son. The book does address some of his mistakes and miscalculations, and the lessons learnt from them in hindsight, but ultimately this is the story of a vastly successful life, and a treatise into how to continue on the same path to success. It also makes important points on statecraft and war craft.
A fictionalised autobiography is a tricky proposition, and for good reason. Speaking in the voice of a well-known (and often well loved) historical figure is fraught with challenges, not only in terms of facts but also cadence and tone. Collier has done an admirable job of capturing both the tone of Akbar’s court and, more importantly, providing a thorough account of the life and times of the man who was a battle away from being just a footnote in the history of the subcontinent.
And all this given that Collier was apparently not even aware of Akbar till about ten years ago. This outsider’s perspective is perhaps the best thing about this novel. It is not coloured by a series of romanticised interpretations, and hence plays out without a Lata-voiced soundtrack. By sticking to the facts, and staying true to history, this novel rises above the ordinary and should, in time, take its place among the celebrated historical novels of our age.
The Emperor’s Writings: Memories
of Akbar The Great
By Dirk Collier
608pp. Rs 1595