In 1998, my wife, two children and I spent a vacation in Oregon. Being a young family, we were not inclined to spend good money on hotels. The plan was to camp out in Portland at the house of my wife’s childhood friend from Bombay, Nawaz, and her husband Allen. In retrospect, we crafted this rather well. Beyond the arriving and the staying – we had no plan.

    On the drive in from the airport, I noticed a corner with a book store I had never heard of – Powell’s. I later learned that it is a well-acknowledged landmark in Portland. The book store must have had a subterranean effect on the city’s residents, because Allen’s house (it was originally Allen’s) was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was no car in the garage – there were 2,000 books. The two available walls of the living room were lined from the floor to the ceiling with books. The bedrooms, besides incidentals such as closets, also had walls that were lined from floor to ceiling with books. All told, Allen estimated he had over 3,000 books.

    We had come to see Oregon, but this vacation was taking another turn. That night, Rashna and the kids repaired to spare bedrooms. I got the coveted sleeping bag next to the couch in the living room. I looked up at Allen’s walls as one might look out at an ocean on a hot day – with an unnamed sense of anticipation and pleasure. There was a book on memes – mental virus’s that jump from person to person and infect entire populations with bizarre ideas. That held my attention for some time.

    And there was a book entitled India – A History by John Keay. I picked it out curiously. What was the history of the country of my birth? I barely knew. There was the bromide that the British had ruled India for 300 years, solidified by an unending series of public TV dramas starring white people fanning themselves in hot, ‘exotic’ places, as servants bowed and scraped. There was the riveting one-act drama of the freedom struggle, which, truth be told, ended in disappointment. Instead of flowering after independence, the India of  my childhood, the India of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, went into a long economic decline marked by inflation and poverty. And what happened before that? There were 3,000 years, but I knew nothing. I recall a picture of Muhammad of Ghazni in my school history book that made him look like the unshaven thug he probably was. And I recall my sister telling me that the Mughals were evil. The Emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his own father.  And there my knowledge stopped.

    Mr Keay’s book took on the improbable task of giving us an account of the entire 3,000 years. This sounds boring. It was not. It was, in fact, a book I found hard to put down, not least because of the dazzling material. As the night flew by, I came to the realization that it would be hard to find another part of the world with such a long and continuous tradition of scintillating civilizations, each leaving behind a richness of narratives, philosophies and art, whose remains can be found today all over India. What an inheritance!

    I reveled in the story of Amrapali, who, in 300 B.C.E acquired the title of principle courtesan of the Licchavi republic as the result of “an elaborate beauty contest”. She subsequently triggered a war with neighboring Magadha because it was discovered she had a spent a night with the Magadhan king, who had sneaked across the border. I laughed at the story of the Yale brothers, who, in the early 1700s,  amassed a fortune in Madras by ripping off the English East India Company. The money was later used – you might say it was laundered – to found Yale University in America.

    But nothing in the book was as compelling as the chapters on the Mughal Empire. By turns, vain, cruel, brilliant, debauched, magnanimous and visionary, the Mughals made an impression on

Personal Journey

    But the policies that created great wealth are only one attribute. Akbar’s promotion of an active and inquisitive form of cultural diversity was unique. Which modern ruler today would have the gumption to bring together representatives of all the great religions, as Akbar did, and have them discuss philosophy in a public forum, in the hope of reaching a common understanding? Hindustan, as it was known in 1600, was one of the world’s great melting pots, bringing together Hindus and Muslims in a symbiosis of cultures that has never been repeated. This, at a time when religions in every other part of the world were at each others’ throats. Rank and file sailors at the Portuguese trading posts along the coasts escaped into the Indian hinterland and adopted Indian ways to escape the Inquisition.

    And then there is the Mughals’ delicious lack of political correctness. Imagine, today, the leader of a great world power drinking twenty cups of wine a day, as Jahangir did? Or engaging in wild parties behind closed curtains, where the sexual liaisons were unnamed and uncounted? This, while presiding over a period of unsurpassed peace and prosperity, in which art, architecture and music flourished. The genius of Jahangir’s rule was that it seemed accidental. And yet it was Jahangir who authored The Twelve Decrees, a set of liberal, overarching laws that he hoped would give justice in his dominion a more solid foundation. Two of these Decrees seemed to have found their way, word-for-word, 170 years later into the Amendments of the American Constitution.

    We did finally strike out from Nawaz and Allen’s house in Portland. We drove over wet, rainy mountains to spend a week of vacationing in perfect weather in and around the town of Bend, Oregon. The drive back was unbearable. My five-year-old cried because his ears were hurting. The Pacific rainforest mists fogged up the windscreen, and it was either too hot in the car from the defogger, or too cold. I could not wait to get back to the Book, which had been left half-read in Allen’s living-room.

    There should be a movie, I thought to myself through the noise in the car as it wound its way along the dark, wet roads. Surely, the Mughals deserve a great movie! Not one that showed them as the over-romanticized cardboard characters of tourist literature, but one that showed them as they were –faulty and inspired. But – it would be impossible. How could I make it real? What was life really like in the streets of Agra and Lahore in 1600?  Where would I find the experience?

    Ten years later, there has been no such movie. But after many visits to the library, and many false starts, The Third Prince is an attempt to fulfill that thought.

the history of the world as no other. Mr Keay’s narrative acquires a hushed tone when he approaches the Mughal chapters. The “magnificent Mughals” is his first mention of them. I did not know that in 1600 Akbar’s India was the world’s greatest economic power-house. At its peak, in 1700, it is estimated that the gross domestic product of the Mughal Empire exceeded that of the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire combined. The European countries did not figure in this equation.

Read an Excerpt

 

    - Jahangir

      and Nur

 

    - Paru