Portrait of a Prince

Deccan Chronicle.  | Swati Sharma

Sunday Chronicle, shelf life

Of course, the main challenge in ‘breathing life’ into historical characters lies in the ability to chronicle their inner lives.

Avik Chanda, author

Dara Shukoh — Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite son and heir-apparent to the Mughal throne prior to being defeated by Aurangzeb — has often been portrayed as an effete prince, incompetent in military and administrative matters. But his tolerance towards other faiths, and the myths and anecdotes surrounding him, continue to fuel debates to this day: If this ‘good’ Mughal had ascended the throne instead of his pugnacious younger brother, how would it have changed the course of Indian history?

Author Avik Chanda’s book, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, attempts to answer this very question as he brings the story of this enigmatic and complex Mughal prince to life. Avik says he did not want to just tell Dara’s story in an engaging, accessible manner — but that he wanted to really make him come to life before the reader. “I discussed this in detail with my agent, Priya Doraswamy and my editor, Rahul Soni, and we collectively agreed that adopting a more novelistic (rather than academic) style of narrative would work well, while retaining the authenticity of recorded historical events. As I had written a novel before, this was a style I could adapt to fairly naturally,” says Avik, a graduate in Economics from Presidency College, Kolkata and a Masters degree holder from the Delhi School of Economics.

Of course, the main challenge in ‘breathing life’ into historical characters lies in the ability to chronicle their inner lives, thoughts and behaviours. “With Dara Shukoh, I relied on contemporary chronicles and memoirs along with the commentary to dramatise not just battle scenes and court intrigue, but the emotional lives of the principal characters. But there were other passages, such as presenting a position on the Rajput code of honour and how this impacted behaviours of their chieftains in certain situations — here, my voice as the narrator inevitably came to the fore. I had to be careful that it smoothened the narrative, and didn’t at any point intrude upon it,” he says, adding, “Unlike Anchor, my debut novel and first book with HarperCollins which contained a few autobiographical elements, Dara Shukoh is a work of non-fiction, based on historical research.”

The character of Dara Shukoh is at par with the major heroes of ancient Greek tragedies: a visionary thinker, a talented poet and prolific writer, a scholar and theologian of unusual merit, a calligraphist and connoisseur of the fine arts, and a dutiful son and warm-hearted family man. “He was also cold and arrogant to the mass of courtiers and commanders, whom he felt were inferior to him, intensely superstitious by nature, easily swayed by mystery and magic, an indifferent army general and shockingly naïve in his judgement of character. Such a personality demands to be written, read and talked about,” says Avik, who has published two poetry collections, Jokhon Bideshe in Bengali (Protibhash, 2006) and Footnotes (Shearsman, 2008).

Elaborating on one of his greatest discoveries while writing the book, the author says, “There have been historians on my mother's side of the family, and as an adolescent, I spent countless hours in their library, my face buried in the sweet, dust-flavoured pages of history books, even if I didn’t fully understand their content. After which, there was a decades’ long hiatus. Thanks to my journey with this book, I’ve now rediscovered the endless, addictive pleasure of reading history, and immersing oneself in the past.”

Interestingly, the title, The Man Who Would Be King, is taken from Kipling’s celebrated book by the same name. “I found resonance between the character’s fate and Dara’s tragic end,” says Avik, explaining that his research for the book hinged on three distinct categories.

“First, translations of Persian manuscripts covering official chronicles, private correspondences, theological debates and philosophical treatises. Second, memoirs of contemporary Europeans, such as Bernier, Tavernier and Manucci, which provided their own insightful, often idiosyncratic perspectives of the times and specific historical events. And of course, the wealth of scholarship and research on the Mughal period, undertaken by historians over the past century, from the days of Irvine and Jadunath Sarkar to the present day. While the bibliography lists around 200 citations, I had consulted many more references in collating my material for the book,” says Avik, who has started work on a new project that’s very much grounded in the 21st century: technological disruption and its impact on the workplace of the future.


It was summer, and late afternoon. Dara wore a light cotton jama, with a woven pattern of little blossoms — and through the hem of the fine muslin, his pale green pyjamas showed through hazily, their delicate folds tapering from the knee down to the ankles; it was a perfect replica of a suit his father had worn earlier that season. No fawning attendants to irritate him, he ambled around the private quarters, humming softly, touching the richly carved pillars one by one. The hall opened to a private courtyard. Directly above him, was a ceiling carved with intricate leaves and tendrils; that curved and intertwined, inlaid with traceries of semi-precious stone. Beyond that — the vast, endless vault of the sky, cloudless, gleamed like a large, unbroken slate of topaz. The sky was alive but also burning. Its heat reached him even where he stood in the shade, so that within moments, beads of perspiration formed around his temples and the line of fabric where the turban sat tight on his head produced a subtle itch.
Sunlight slanted across the courtyard, throwing everything in the background into a deep shadow. And in that thin line between light and dark, fine particles of dust appeared, rising, floating, but going nowhere.

The marble slabs beneath his feet, the hot afternoon that met his face, these beads of sweat. And the light — what was light, what was the sun, for that matter — if not fire? Here, then, were all the elements of nature present. Together, these constituted the universe. But what did it all really mean? What did the word ‘element’ mean? You can think of them as symbols, one of his tutors had said. And what was a symbol? This or that quality of man resembles an element of nature, the tutor had explained. Poets made much of them. The goodness of the saint was like an inner flame. The Great Sikander was a lion in battle. Such, then, was the use of symbols. But what if the sun and moon, the flame and the lion, this heat, this visible and yet ungraspable dust rising from the ground in the courtyard - what if all these were metaphors for something else, something so beyond human conception that no man, except perhaps a great dervish, could even imagine that they existed?

Dara leaned slowly, resting his back against a pillar and an enigmatic smile formed on his lips. A eunuch, approaching this way, was quite unaware of his presence. Suddenly, as the prince appeared only a few feet away, he instantly smiled, greeted and bowed low, his back stiff and alert. But Dara’s gaze was far away.