(Published in the Business Standard, September 3, 2009)

Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North
Alex Rutherford
Hachette, Rs 495, 434 pages

In a classic essay on Babur, Amitav Ghosh wonders: “What made him pen this immense book [the Baburnama] and how on earth did he find the time? Between the moment when he gained his first kingdom at the age of 12 and his death 35 years later, there seems scarcely to have been a quiet day in Babur’s life. His first kingdom was the only one he didn’t have to risk his life for: he inherited it from his father, a scion of a dynasty that was far richer in aspiring rulers than in thrones.”

In the course of his life, Babur won, lost and consolidated kingdoms, struggled in his early twenties with exile; as a young emperor, battled homesickness as he reviewed his conquests in India; and courtesy his unusually candid autobiography, revealed more of himself than elaborate court records reveal of his Mughal successors. All of this makes him the instinctive choice for the ambitious historical novelist, and with a planned cycle of five novels spanning the Mughal empire in the Empire of the Moghul series, Alex Rutherford is nothing if not ambitious.

Rutherford reveals little of his identity, beyond the fact that he lives in London, but in an afterword, his passion for history comes through: “I’ve visited nearly all the places important to Babur’s story. His ancestral kingdom of Ferghana…. is still a place of apple, almond and apricot orchards, with beds of juicy melons the size of footballs. I’ve slept in [the herdsmens’] conical felt tents, eaten their root vegetables, mutton and buttered rice, which would have been so familiar to Babur, and drunk the fermented mare’s milk that warmed him.” This is an almost familiar voice, combining a journalist’s curiosity with the trained or serious amateur historian’s eye for detail, and it promises much for the series.

Raiders From the North begins with the 12-year-old Babur witnessing the death of his father, Umair-Shaikh, killed in the collapse of his dovecote as the doves flutter “in the air like snowflakes” above the royal corpse. Babur’s adolescence is a tricky period for a novelist to cover; deprived of the intense, honest and almost chatty voice that informs the pages of the Baburnama, Rutherford must fall back on invention, and he struggles just a bit as the young boy-king attempts to handle intrigue, wicked viziers and the ambitions of his uncles. But Rutherford establishes much in the first few chapters, as Babur dons his father’s sword, Alamgir, but not the armour (“still too wide for him”) and prepares to claim one kingdom and hold on to another. He sets out the young king’s ambition, his fierce allegiance to the Timurid line, the deep but strong bonds between him, his sister Khanzada, his mother and his grandmother, Esan Dawlat, descended from Genghis Khan’s line.

At sixteen, Babur had attacked, won and lost Samarkand—and lost his own kingdom, Ferghana. At nineteen, he regained Samarkand, only to lose it again to Shaibani Khan. At twenty-two, he had captured Kabul; at 29, after briefly conquering Herat and being hailed as a saviour in Bukhara, Babur once again held—and once again lost—Samarkand. This final loss obliged him to turn his attention elsewhere; the prince without a kingdom found his way to India, and by the time of his death at 47, he had defeated the Lodis, demanded the allegiance of many of the Rajputs, and was emperor of India.

To cover this territory, Rutherford must use his licence to fictionalise, allowing us to see Babur through the eyes of Wazir Khan, Baisanghar and a market boy called Baburi. Through Wazir Khan, his father’s trusted lieutenant, we see Babur as a mentor would see him; through Baisanghar, commander of Babur’s army, we see the emperor as his soldiers would see him, and through the heavily fictionalised character of Baburi, we see Babur as a man caught between the driving force of his ambition and the constant presence of disillusionment. The pace is fast, and Rutherford carries off the battle scenes with élan, while his understanding of the landscape brings Babur’s story to life. The dialogue, so often the heart and the Achilles heel of historical novels, flows well but can sometimes retreat into stilted High Speech.

But while Rutherford doesn’t—yet—have the soaring imagination and absolute precision of a George R R Martin, or the finesse and depth of a Philippa Gregory, Raiders From the North deserves its position on the Indian bestseller charts. In a country saturated and steeped in history, we have so few good popular historical novels. We could debate the use of “Moghul” over “Mughal”—“Moghul” carries the faintly imperial hangover of out-of-date colonial textbooks—and occasionally question whether the characters are richly enough drawn.

Despite these quibbles, Raiders From the North is an excellent opening shot, miles better than the average page-turner. Whoever Alex Rutherford might be, he’s set the bar high for his next four novels—and this reviewer, for one, looks forward to the rest of the quintet.