Saturday, December 16, 2017

Can literary acumen swing political power?

There is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises.

Can literary acumen act as a means to political ascendency in recent times? Alternately, is there scope for political prowess to be embellished by literary merit? Far from getting any further on it, the veracity of such questions will be frowned upon and the audacity of the seeker will evoke mirth and glee. Present day political life is marred by a moral decline and a slump in ethics, to say the least. And there is little room for literary enterprise to flourish in the political arena as electoral politics thrives on wooing a divided society on lofty promises. Acquisition of power is at the cost of everything humane, literature being an essential casualty.      

That literary enterprise of history, language and religion can be combined as an aspect of nation building is an essential take away from the lives of two nobles, the father and son who lived separately through the reigns of four Mughal emperors. Bairam Khan for his military acumen, and Abdur Rahim for his literary prowess, had stamped their extraordinary presence during the period of great literary and spiritual effervescence under the reigns of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir and Shajahan during the 16th and 17th century. More than their unconditional loyalty, it was their political acumen and martial valor that had helped both to enviable positions in the royal courts. 

In his painstakingly detailed and historically accurate account, T.C.A Raghavan captures the political jealousies and ideological controversies that these nobles were prey to. How they maneuvered through the muddle without compromising on their literary talents is both intriguing and inspiring? Ability to compose and recite poetry spontaneously came handy for Bairam throughout his distinguished career. Adroit in encompassing flattery in its subtlest form in his poetry, the decorated regent could push many crucial political decisions in favor of the empire. Politics was not a disgrace for wise men during those days, but close proximity to the throne did cause repulsion and ultimate decline of Bairam Khan.        

Attendant Lords is a vivid narrative on the most important period in history, when the Mughals were not only consolidating power but were negotiating religious diversity through political upmanship. It is not just the Mughals who were pulling the diverse socio-cultural-religious narratives into a nationalistic discourse, history is replete with instances where powers-that-be have tried to reconcile such tensions in different ways. What made the Mughals different was their attempt at invoking sympathies from our across cultures, with an aim at demonstrating liberal behaviour towards the masses.

Bairam Khan’s dismissal and subsequent departure from the court had left a residual guilt in the mind of Akbar, who showered his kindness on child Abdur Rahim who was only five years old at the time of his father’s demise. Rahim grew up as a well-regarded scholar of Persian, Turkish and Arabic, and owed these acquisitions to the liberal scholarly atmosphere in the court. It had lasting impact on Rahim, on his approach to life, politics, and power. Subsequent to the ceremonious return of his abducted wife on the instructions of Rana Pratap, Rahim had lost all desire to defeat so worthy a foe and had requested Akbar to be relieved of his command on grounds of ill health. On being questioned by the emperor, Rahim is believed to have responded ‘his courage, pride, chivalry and patriotism distinguish him as one who should receive the emperor’s benevolence’. The campaign against Mewar was given up, suggestive of the sowing of the earliest seeds of Indian nationalism on Hindu-Muslim unity.

Given his background in history, Raghvan delves on historicity of the cultural effervescence of the period from a literary lens. Persian poetry was ‘an important vehicle of liberalism in the medieval Muslim world (and) helped in no significant way in creating and supporting the Mughal attempt to accommodate diverse religious traditions.’ Language, poetry and politics were aligned under the patronage of nobles like Rahim, who had himself emerged as a poet of extraordinary brilliance. From decorative to devotional, Rahim’s moral aphorisms rest on simple verses in which everyday life resonates. His verse Rahiman pani rakhiye, bin paani sub sun (Always keep water, for without it nothing exists) has an immortal endurance.    

Attendant Lords is a work of scholarship, navigating the lives of these two nobles in history, literature, and later in cinema. Akbari dispensation of interfaith harmony would not have been possible without Bairam Khan, which was subsequently nurtured by Abdur Rahim. Raghvan aptly concludes the biography of two important pillars of the empire by locating them in the present, ‘ is their ambitions, accomplishments and flaws, interfacing with difficult choices, rightly or wrongly made, that give us the point of entry to use our own present to understand their long-past lives.’ It is no modest admission than to say that in doing so we do get to understand our own times better. 

Attendant Lords
by T C A Raghvan
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 337, Price: Rs 699

This review was first published in the Hindustan Times, dated Dec 16, 2017.

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