Who was Akbar?

The central question that the Mughal emperor Akbar poses in Salman Rushdie’s recent short story The Shelter of the World is:

How could he become the man he wanted to be? The akbar, the great one? How?

At the start of the story the emperor is initially perceived as a terror in the bastis of Sikri, the city that he founded, only to be informed by his imaginary wife Jodha about the infamy that this brought him. He changes the rules and encourages people to speak up, announcing:

“Make as much racket as you like, people! Noise is life, and an excess of noise is a sign that life is good. There will be time for us all to be quiet when we are safely dead.” The city burst into joyful clamor.

That was the day on which it became clear that a new kind of king was on the throne, and that nothing in the world would remain the same.

The change, however, is not straight forward and soon the emperor is on one of his conquests, beheading an upstart, the Rana of Cooch Naheen. It is the remorse after killing the young Rana, that Akbar, like Ashoka after the Battle of Kalinga, faces the existentialist question on how to become great. It is certainly not by beheading small time threats to his growing empire.

The country was at peace at last, but the King’s spirit was never calm….

He, Akbar, had never referred to himself as “I”, not even in his private dreams.

Was this “we” a manifestation of his greatness as an emperor, as the man who conquered Hindustan, as a descendent of Genghis Khan and Babar, “the barbarian with a poet’s tongue?”

Evidently, jahanpanah, the shelter of the world, feels that it is not so. He feels that he is as lowly as any other human being who needs the love of the imaginary Jodha, who is not so much a person as an idea of Hindustan and tries to discover his greatness in ‘I’, instead of we. Only to discover that the ‘I’ does not exist, it is ‘we’, but this ‘we’ is the plural not of the brutal conquests that he has carried out to carve his empire, but the conquest of Jodha’s heart. It is the we of pluralism.

The story is certainly not without its faults. At places its is marred by an excessive wordplay and sometimes by unnecessary distractions and convolutions- typical Rushdie fare that is not unreadable, but certainly demands patience. A fascinating character in the story is that of Bhakti Ram Jain, Akbar’s stone deaf personal assistant. Also fascinating is the usage of the Akbar- Birbal anecdotes interwoven in the dense story less than 8000 words!

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Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

4 thoughts on “Who was Akbar?”

  1. hehe! True, but the disagreement is not about the contents of the story as much as the intent of the writer; in this case Mr. Rushdie. Did he not capitalize on the fact that there was this much publicized movie on the same subject with an amazing array of actors that was to be released about the same time that Salman Rushdie decides to write his “Shelter of the World’! It displays a basic lack of self confidence in ones abilities to weather the storm of a new release on the exclusive character of the piece itself. In this case the artist was hoping to get a free ride out of the publicity that the movie was getting; is Mr. rushdie now unsure of the draw his name brings?!

    As for the story itself, it is a neat piece of writing that focuses on the mystery that the name of Jodha evokes within the South East Asian population, Pakistan and India specifically. I was intrigued by one particular point you made and you could view this as a partial disagreement with your analysis, hehe:
    “Was this “we” a manifestation of his greatness as an emperor, as the man who conquered Hindustan, as a descendent of Genghis Khan and Babar, “the barbarian with a poet’s tongue?”
    The fact that Akbar was a great ruler and diplomat cannot be disregarded; the whole Jodha incident, whether fact or fiction, served him well in the annals of History! Akbar may have consciously made this political move to win him brownie points with his Hindu population as also with liberal citizens of the future like you and me.

  2. Whatever be Rushdie’s motivations, the story is quite good in its theme. Similarly, whatever be Akbar’s motivations, I think the idea of plurality that he upheld, and is highlighted in the story, is remarkable for both Akbar’s, and our own cynical times.

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