Battles, betrayals and building an empire: Babur in Hindustan (Book Review)

Title: Babur: Conqueror of Hindustan; Author: Royina Grewal; Publisher: Rupa Publications India; Pages: 432; Price:Rs.395

A popular hero across Iran and Central Asia, Babur has unfortunately not earned the same approbation in his adopted country despite finding there a long-lasting empire that has shaped the contours of modern India and whose cultural influence still persists. And it is not that he is a dour, unprepossessing character shrouded in obscurity – he was the first Indian ruler to pen an autobiography, which is a lively and candid read, though a little short about his stint in Hindustan.

Providing the bigger, multi-perspective picture about his glittering but brief career of in Hindustan is author Royina Grewal in her first novel. Based on history but “with many digressions into fiction”, it begins (after a portentous prologue where an accident proves to be well-planned murder and whose significance of which we will realise later) as he girds up to face the armies of Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi, on a dusty field north of Delhi.

The result of the First Battle of Panipat is known as of the subsequent struggles – on the battlefield and off it including in his own boudoir – the new ruler waged to cement his power and establish his dynasty, but Grewal, while keeping well within the boundaries of recorded history, pens a compellingly engrossing tale of those four years when the future course of of India was decided.

The account of history cannot be changed, but its characters’ motives and moves can be imaginatively reinterpreted. Though, Babar, whose memoirs “Baburnama” reveals him to be a typical Renaissance Man, emerges mostly true to type as a consummate and resolute warrior and statesman and erudite to boot, and so does his son and heir, the brave but inexperienced and perfectionist Humayun, (who also has a biography written by his sister), there is no restriction where others are concerned.

Thus, Grewal portrays one of Babur’s closest advisers as resentful and subtly traitorous, various family members who have less than his best interests at heart, feuding loaned Ottoman artillery experts Ali Quli Khan and Mustafa Rumi, both who played key roles in the battles of Panipat, Khanwa among others, as well as the ever-present harem intrigues that would long bedevil the Mughal court.

For purposes of the story, come in some additional characters beyond those in the annals of history, including the concubine Sona, and the Raja of Silhet (based on Silhadi or Raja Shiladitya, whose defection during the Battle of Khanwa led to the defeat of the Rajput-Afghan army), and his family with its complications.

What really makes the book stands out in the objective treatment of history rendered by Grewal, who earlier brush with Mughals was “In the Shadow of the Taj: A Portrait of Agra” about her wanderings in the historical city and other attractions beyond Shah Jahan’s immortal monument.

Babur, who has been fighting for his patrimony even before he became a teenager and has known unparalleled successes – and setbacks – emerges as much more than an unprincipled adventurer who struck lucky, the battles were not conflicts between religion – it was Ibrahim Lodhi that was beaten at Panipat, and many Afghans, loyal to the Lodhis, were fighting along with the Rajputs at Khanwa, Babur’s call for a Jihad was political, not religious, and so was his public abjuration of wine (Of this, he admits in “Baburnama”: “It was a really good plan, and it had a favorable propagandistic effect on friend and foe” – W.M.Thackston translation, Modern Library, 2002) and why the Rajputs, despite their undoubted valour, came worst-off (The Raja of Silhet’s story is a good pointer).

What is missing is a longer author’s note pointing the liberties taken with history, and identifying the historical and the fictional. But as a imaginative record of a seminal period of Indian history, this even surpasses Alex Rutherford’s “Raiders from the North”.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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