A prince among men


Really enjoyed writing this piece since I got opportunity to meet Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and the author of Dara Shukoh: A Play in Verse to talk about his book. It's a beautifully written volume which looks at the clash between pluralism and orthodoxy through the life of Dara Shukoh, the doomed, younger brother of Aurangzeb. Although my chat with Mr Gandhi lasted about 15 mins, it was one of the most enjoyable meetings in a long time. Read on:

At a point in Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s play Dara Shukoh, Mir Jumla, a staunch ally of the Mughal prince Aurangzeb, camps on the outskirts of Delhi. It is night time, and Jumla is dictating a letter to the prince when he is interrupted. A soldier enters his tent, informing Jumla that he has arrested a family that forced its 12-year-old daughter-in-law to commit sati. Jumla admonishes the soldier, saying “Law is law, custom custom/Therefore, their decrees cannot overlap/We uphold the former, Leave convention for some bold reformer.” His casual dismissal resonates with the Khap panchayat horror that still consumes Delhi’s hinterland, precisely where Jumla might have been camped three centuries ago.
“Very often the combination of orthodoxy and male chauvinism has wreaked havoc in India,” said Gandhi, considering the allegory. A long-time critic of India’s social violence, Gandhi powerfully channels the struggle against religious and social orthodoxy in the play, which was reissued in paperback last month. Gandhi, the former governor of West Bengal, is a prolific writer of history and translated Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy into Hindustani. In Dara Shukoh, he uses rhyming medleys – inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s 1892 play Akbar’s Dream and John Dryden’s 1675 Restoration Drama Aurengzebe –to tell the story of the famously enlightened Mughal prince, who despite being his father Shah Jehan’s choice as emperor, was overthrown by his conservative brother Aurangzeb in a bitter war of succession.
While the history is riveting, Gandhi uses the saga to illustrate a contemporary struggly between religious tolerance and conservatism that still blights sections of society today. “I didn’t take him [Dara] out of the context of history,” he said. “He was, to me, a figure in history who lent himself to dramatic presentation without any embellishments.” Of course, as with most tragic heroes, Dara’s character contained a fatal flaw – in this case an overly trusting nature. He was not built to slay his own flesh and blood, and bemused by how easily his brother turned him and their father in the pursuit of power. “From all I’ve been able to understand, Shukoh was a very trusting man to the point of being gullible”, said Gandhi. “His reactions to the intrigues of court were reactions of a trusting man who was bewildered by the betrayal of trust.” His gullibility was matched by severe anger-management problems, which Gandhi does not fail to present, as in the third act when Dara reacts to news of his brother Shuja’s rebellion: “Shuja you malignant tumour/ Cyst of a rumour/ Suppurating excess/ In pig’s recess.”
Yet for all its rage and betrayal, Dara Shukoh is a play counterbalanced with optimism. For the writer, Dara’s story is less a tragedy than a “triumph of tragedy”. The prince has proved an enduring and popular figure in Indian history, a sort of icon for tolerance, Gandhi said. “In India, it is the illiberal who are on the margins but are more vocal. The centre-stage is still extremely tolerant which is why people respond to Dara Shukoh in the way they do.” This response has had traction elsewhere in South Asian literature. In his 2000 novel Moth Smoke, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid uses the prince’s trial as an allegory for the state of Pakistan during the 1998 nuclear tests.
Perhaps appropriately, Dara has received few of the grand memorials that go to men of power. It’s doubtful the visitors who course through Humayan’s tomb every weekend realise that the prince lies buried in an unmarked grave there. Unlike his father and brother, no roads in New Delhi were named after the Sufi prince. But it may be that Dara secured a greater seat than the one that was captured by his brother, Gandhi said. “Aurangzeb ascended the throne but Dara Shukoh was already enthroned in the hearts of the people.”

This piece first appeared in the TimeOut Delhi magazine.