(Published in the Business Standard, March 2010. I met and liked Michael and Diana Preston, co-authors of the Empire of the Moghul series, but as is apparent, I wasn’t sold on the second volume. The Prestons have been travelling to India for over 30 years, and know their Mughals–but Humayun didn’t come to life for me. Not that this is going to dent their impressive Indian sales, and both of them seem so enthusiastic about the Jahangir book, where Mehr-un-Nissa takes over the story, and the Akbar book, that I’m willing to stay with the series a while longer.
Loved Michael’s story about travelling to Iran just after the Rushdie fatwa with a copy of the Baburnama. Just before he reached, he realised it had a foreword by Salman Rushdie, so he ripped out those pages; then searched the book frantically for more Rushdie mentions, and finally made Teheran airport with a bowdlerised Baburnama, title pages, foreword, back cover missing. After all that effort, Iran Customs showed no interest in the book.)

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War

Alex Rutherford,

Hachette, Rs 495, 436 pages

Edo Steinberg is an unsung, unpublished genius whose claim to fame rests on this contribution to the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest:

“Our tale takes place one century before the reign of Alboin, the Lombard king who would one day conquer most of Italy and who would end up being murdered by his own wife (quite rightfully, I’d say, since Alboin made a drinking cup out of her daddy’s skull and forced her to drink from it), when our little Sonnebert was seven years old.”

Steinberg was one of the 2008 winners in the Historical Fiction category, and this entry sums up the pitfalls of trying to write in the epic vein. It’s tempting to adopt a sonorous style to fit the period, to introduce too much information too fast, and to try to sneak in a winsome minor character, usually of dubious value.

Contrast this with the quiet opening paragraph of Brothers at War, by Alex Rutherford: “The wind was chill. If Humayun closed his eyes he could almost imagine himself back among the pastures and mountains of the Kabul of his boyhood, rather than here on the battlements of Agra. But the short winter was ending. In a few weeks the plains of Hindustan would burn with heat and dust.”

In just two books, part of the grandly ambitious Empire of the Moghul series, the husband-and-wife team that make up the pseudonymous “Alex Rutherford” have made their mark on historical fiction in India. Diana and Michael Preston are both civil servants and enthusiastic travelers, and what drives Empire of the Moghul is their passion for the bloody lives and times of the emperors, from Babur to Aurangzeb. The first book, Raiders from the North, drew heavily from Babur’s writings to create a portrait of a young, ambitious king, exiled several times over in his fierce quest for a kingdom of his own; Brothers at War takes us into the far more internal struggles of Humayun.

In their account, Humayun emerges as a man of the senses, beguiled and betrayed by his appetites, embracing opium as passionately as he embraces the women of his harem. His virtues are also his weaknesses: the compassion and forgiveness he shows his warring brothers as they plot against him will drive him into exile for years. As with the first book in the series, it’s the Prestons’ attention to detail and their intimate knowledge of the workings of the Mughal empire that makes this a satisfying, meaty read. They’re great on the battle sequences, and when they offer details such as the astrological carpet Humayun has woven when his opium-fuddled mind wants the court to be governed by the planets, they bring the period alive.

But the really great historical novels, like really great literary novels, make their mark by creating unforgettable characters. Hillary Mantel did this in Wolf Hall by bringing Thomas Cromwell—the weaver’s brat who rose to become the king’s counselor—to life against the bloody, brutal background of Tudor England. George RR Martin, with a cast of fictional characters in an imaginary landscape in the Song of Ice and Fire, pulls off an awesome feat when he makes you believe in a country where the last of the dragons still terrorise the skies and direwolves roam an increasingly bitter winter landscape. He does this by making his protagonists—the young boy-king, Rob, the diabolically shrewd and kind dwarf Tyrion Lannister—as real as though they inhabited the pages of a history textbook.

The Prestons do their best, lacing Humayun’s struggle to reach, and hold, the throne of Hindustan with internal monologues: “An even deeper melancholy took hold of Humayun—not only grief at Maham’s death but a sense that many of the certainties of his youth were crumbling. All his life he’d been a pampered prince, brought up to expect great things as of right, confident of his place in the world. Never before had he felt so insignificant, so vulnerable to the buffeting of others’ actions.”

This tiny section encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the Rutherford/ Preston approach. They manage, successfully, to avoid the kind of bombast and clichés that infest what might be called the school of the hysterical novel. But if these first two books are any indication, Empire of the Moghul will remain a satisfactory, page-turning read, never reaching the heights of the really great historical novels. As with Babur, Humayun in these pages emerges as slightly more interesting than he does from the history textbooks—but they remain flat characters.

One way around this for writers like Philippa Gregory has been to focus the action on minor characters, letting us see emperors and empire through the eyes of a footsoldier, or a skeptical vizier, or a lady of the harem. The trick, with this series, is to treat a historical character the way you would treat an imagined character, to reimagine the emperors of India. For all the virtues of this series, perhaps the Prestons will remain better historians than novelists.