Conversations with Aurangzeb By Charu Nivedita. (Image: DC)
If I were told I could use just one word to describe Charu Nivedita's novel Conversations with Aurangzeb: A Novel (translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan), the word I'd choose would be "irreverent".
Nothing is safe from Nivedita's cheekiness. Not the plight of Indian authors — so disrespected in this country, poor things, unlike authors in South American countries who are treated as national treasures. Not the histories of emperors such as Ashoka and Aurangzeb — marketing alone made one a hero and the other a villain. Not the current zeitgeist of the country — when Chile suddenly decrees that drinking water is to be served free of charge at every eatery, it's Modi who's pulled that off, not two drunken writers from India and the spirit of an Indian emperor.
Even the premise of Conversations with Aurangzeb is irreverent. The narrator, who has heard of an aghori who once summoned the spirit of the Emperor Akbar, asks the aghori to summon the spirit of Shah Jahan to give him the opportunity to do some primary research for a book he is planning to write. But Shah Jahan is elbowed out by Aurangzeb, who wants to speak in his own defence. For too long has he been perceived as the bigot to end all bigots. Now he wants to set the record straight.
In the process of Aurangzeb’s discourses on faith, violence, and war, the narrator cannot help but interrupt, which leads to diversions as varied as encounter killings, Sunny Leone, and the attitude of South American countries to authors as compared to India (Nivedita is bitter about this). There are also revelations about members of the Mughal dynasty, and other spirits pop in from time to time, some to defend Aurangzeb and others to do the very opposite, leading to some very funny episodes.
As much as I was entertained by this book, however, it didn't make me want to rush off and buy hundreds of copies to thrust into the hands of my friends and family members with the terse demand that they drop everything and read it now.
That’s because though the title declares that Conversations with Aurangzeb is a novel, it’s more a novelty than anything else. There’s no storyline, just a series of historical episodes and many amusing diversions written by an author with a delightful imagination. Without a central theme to hold the book together other than its premise of the spirit of Aurangzeb, the novel cannot keep its readers glued to its pages. You don’t read it because you need to know what happens next. You read it because you’re bored and need amusement.
This is unfortunate because the historical episodes related by Aurangzeb and the other spirits are fascinating and so brilliantly told that I felt as though I was there. It’s because of this that Conversations with Aurangzeb will remain on my bookshelves for the next few years at least. I know I’ll want to re-read those episodes again and again and again.
Conversations with Aurangzeb
By Charu Nivedita
Translated by Nandini Krishnan
Published HarperCollins India
pp. 330; Rs 599