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Friday, July 19, 2019

Book Review: Empire of the Moghul- The Serpent's Tooth


Of Unmatched Love and Long Battles
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, July 18, 2013 13:39
Tags : Alex Rutherford | The Tainted Throne | The Serpent’s Tooth | Mughal |

Yet, there is a marked difference. True art often has no qualms about existing for its own sake – indeed it thrives in the idea of being enveloped in its own rarefied bubble. But activism, a pursuit of ideals that are aimed at changing the world into a better place, would be of no use at all if it were to fail to have any impact on its target.

When Alex Rutherford’s immensely successful Empire of the Moghul series came out with its fourth instalment, The Tainted Throne, based on the life of Jahangir, it became evident that there will be a sixth book in the otherwise planned quintet. Its fifth instalment, The Serpent’s Tooth, puts that confusion to rest.

Like their previous four instalments that dealt primarily as bildungsromans for a particular Mughal, The Serpent’s Tooth deals with the life and times of Shah Jahan, probably the second most fateful Mughal emperor after Humayun.

The book opens with an assassination attempt on Shah Jahan that was thwarted more by Shah Jahan’s own heroism than luck. After a rather gruesome civil war, Shah Jahan is shown to be settling in with the rule, trying to enjoy some well deserved pleasures. However, like it happened during the reign of his predecessors, the days of frolic are numbered. There is a massive rebellion in the Deccan, every Mughal emperor’s nightmare, that needed to be suppressed and suppressed fast. Only, the Bijapurans had other plans. The campaign dragged, draining manpower, coffer and prestige of the Mughal empire. Shah Jahan realised that this had to be settled with some ingenuity and that is what finally won the day.

Somewhere in between, his beloved, Mumtaz Mahal, died in child birth, leaving Shah Jahan distraught and inconsolable. The campaign was won, the wife lost, Shah Jahan decided to build  a mausoleum worthy of her remembrance. A substantial part of the novel then deals with the erection of this masterpiece. And while they were at it, the sibling rivalry between Shah Jahan’s sons slowly started turning into visceral hatred with Aurangzeb clearly believing that Dara Sikoh, the oldest and the de facto successor, was fit more for translating scriptures from Sanskrit to Persian and other scholarly pursuits than say ruling Hindustan.

The second part of the novel deals with the famous Northern Campaign and the all-out war between his sons for succession. This fifth installment of the series has its strengths and weaknesses like the previous four.

However, while the weaknesses were few in their previous four outings, it appears glaring here in comparison.
Take for example the Deccan Campaign. It drags on and on like the real life event and after a time readers just want to get over with at any cost. The description of battles, a strong point in all the four previous instalments, is still engaging, but there are simply too many battles, skirmishes and ambushes for the readers to enjoy them. After a time one loses count.

The authors’ portrayal of the young Aurangzeb is also pretty disappointing. Considering how ruthless and brutal Aurangzeb turned out to be, one can imagine some inkling even during his childhood. However, the authors fail to introduce such moments seamlessly and when one reads these sections, the attempt looks laboured. It is as if more than the man himself, the authors want the young boy to turn out to be an absolute rascal that he eventually anyways turned into. It gives a feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy—never good for historical fiction.

Also, the post-marriage romance between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz is hurried through. Considering a substantial portion of the book is about the construction of Taj Mahal, it is only fair to expect a  good number of pages dedicated to understanding that love. There is precious little to be found there.

But that’s about it. It is not to say that the book is unreadable. It is just not as unputdownable as the previous four outings. But it is also fair to admit that after reading all the four, the lethargy might have started to set in for the readers too. Either ways, the onus to make it appear interesting lies on the authors.

This novel’s strengths are its chapters dealing with the construction of Taj and the Northern Campaign. The research that has gone there is extensive. Also, the way the authors have made it look seamless in the narrative is worth appreciating. Right from the beginning of the construction to its eventual completion, the authors have provided vivid details of what went into the construction of this masterpiece.

The chapters dealing with the Northern Campaign, civil war and fratricide are also well written and harbinger of what is there to come in the next instalment. Everything that was wrong with the chapters dealing with Deccan Campaign suddenly vanishes when one reaches here.

It can be said that after the false start, the authors regained composure in the final chapters and saved the day. The last instalment will come by the year-end. It will be interesting to see how the curtains are rung down.


Author: Alex Rutherford

Edition: Hardcover

ISBN: 978-0-7553-4763-6

Pages: 512

Price: Rs. 395

Publisher: Hachette

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017