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Book review: Ocean of Cobras by Murad Ali Baig
Ocean of Cobras: The Chronicle of a Slave to the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, a book by Murad Ali Baig.

Writing history from stories is a major intellectual exercise.   But creating a story out of history requires more – an imagination that reflects what happened, at the same time walking through the spirit of the time.  Murad Ali Baig in his Ocean of Cobras has done precisely that – to give flesh and blood to the skeletal memory of the penultimate moment of Mughal rule on the sub-continent – the final years of Emperor Shah Jahan and the fratricidal struggle for the throne in Delhi.

The book is a portrait of Dara Shikoh - a neglected ecumenical figure in histories of the period - favorite son of Shah Jahan and one of three brothers of Mughal Badshah Aurangzeb.  The period acquires life through the eyes, ears,  and soul of Mubarak Ali, a court eunuch and slave who enjoyed unique access to the extended royal Mughal family.  This voice renders many tales and tales within tales, bringing alive late seventeenth and early eighteenth century "India" with embroidered detail - the first family, court politics, battles between the brothers, their lust, loves and lives, and their hopes, fears, jealousies and hatreds.

The scenes and acts change: forays into tribal life; the ritual of the royal hunt; the finery of the zenana; seamless seductions; the gossip of the bazaar; culinary journeys into sumptuous banquets; and encounters with visitors from afar.  Beneath the glitter, the hustle and bustle of bazaars and the moving cities of royalty, lurks the rivalry between the siblings.  The tensions surface, pull and fall like the tow of currents in shallow waters - sensuous versus the austere; the laid back versus the disciplined; liberal versus orthodox Islam; the other-worldly versus the here and now; Dara versus Aurangzeb.

Immersed in the struggle and shaped by it are the visions, characters and passions of the two brothers who wrestle for purpose and pre-eminence.  Few may know that Dara commissioned the first translations of the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita into Persian.  One encounters the first travellers from the West and their impressions of the country when early modern Europe was striking root.  Others would learn more of the intricate and fickle Hindu-Muslim alliances that influenced outcomes of the time.  The two faiths and the family of the ageing and marginalised Shah Jahan were bound and broken by exigencies of temporal power.  A persistent question that lingers in the narrative is what might India have been, had Dara reigned instead of his brother.

Beyond this larger question is the salience of the social and the play of chance which rarely find place in conventional accounts:  the chance encounter of Shah Jahan with a mendicant whose prophecy colors the psyche of a father toward his sons – particularly his suspicion of Aurangzeb and pampering of Dara, and its larger effect on family relations and court politics.  The restrained yet haunting role of the sisters - Jahanara, tenderly passionate but enigmatic; the malevolent but clairvoyant Roshanhara,  and the melancholic Gauharara;  and the shenanigans of the elder king with the wives of his generals who later come to haunt Dara.  These and other anecdotes string the high politics of empire into the human soil of everyday life.

Woven into these tales are excursions into military organization, strategy and technology of Mughal warfare, how armies moved and fought more than three hundred years ago.  Baig's rendition of tactics, maneuvers and sieges, logistics, weaponry and marches is masterful.  One moment you are in the midst of a campaign – the twists and turns in the fog of battle.  At another, on the Malwa plateau, or the climax of the final encounter between the brothers near Ajmer.  It is a ring side view from the howdah of an elephant, of changing fortunes of nobles and soldiers, personal tugs that underlay combat, and the ideas and expectations that compel men and women to act and choose as individuals, while silently a collective destiny forms.

Importantly, the book quietly touches some of the central themes that persist in the governance of modern India:  the intrigues and complications of dynastic politics; the relationship between state and religion; the long misunderstood engagement of the Islamic and Hindu way of life; and the continued distance between the ruler and ruled.  The Ocean of Cobras is an enchanting primer into our late medieval past which has much relevance for understanding the medieval present.

Kishore Mandhyan/ September 2015

Former Political Advisor - Cabinet of the United Nation's Secretary General

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