If Zahiruddin Babur had been born in the twenty-first century instead of the fifteenth, he could have chosen to become a poet-adventurer-raconteur, tweeting from the edge of the world. Instead he became a warrior and conqueror who went on to start a legendary dynasty. Similarly, his grandson Akbar had all the qualities of a Sufi preacher combined with the abilities of a general and a king. It is the circumstances of their lives that took them on a very different journey.
As I looked at this book, I wondered how Babur’s tumultuous life could be told through a lushly-illustrated picture book. What we get here is Babur’s view of the world through illustrations that seduce you into turning the pages. I spent a long time studying the delicate drawings of the Charbagh gardens and the minarets; jugglers in a bazaar and galloping horses; children playing by a river and an utterly delightful camel with film-starry eyelashes. I was hooked just looking at the pictures.
As a word person, it is the text that usually gets my attention first, but this book review will start with Urmimala Nag’s miniature style drawings. She uses the pastel palette of Mughal miniature paintings – cerulean, turquoise, mauve and leaf green, along with patches of golden orange and deep scarlet, transform every page into a stunning painting a child will enjoy looking at.
There were pages where I stopped for a long time, like the one showing Babur praying. It is done in shades of blue and an inky black sky studded with shimmering stars. You did not need the words here, the image told the story. These are clever illustrations that draw you in. You spot a Sanganeri textile bel-buta motif on a window; an intricate page of leafy trees, fruits and flowers in a jungle like a patch of kalamkari and the fragile jaali designs of Mughal stone carvings fading into a dress. This was so Indian, it made my heart sing.
Visually, what we had was definitely a picture book, so I wondered how author Parvati Sharma would tell her story of a real-life king to match it. Sharma chooses a read-aloud, fairytale-at-bedtime kind of voice and handles the narrative with a light touch using sound effects and silly poems. Now that makes it quite a challenge because Babur’s life was no fairytale. He lost his father at eleven; for years he survived around Afghanistan marauding with a band of warriors like a brigand, and he was a fierce conqueror who spared no one.
Sharma bases her tale on the Baburnama, the ruler’s surprisingly frank autobiography and cherry-picks episodes that match her narrative. It does turn Babur into a rather benign, fairytale prince, but since his life is so full of action and unexpected happenings, it keeps the story moving at a nice pace. She floats swiftly and cleverly over the trials and tribulations and gory scenes in Babur’s life. This ensures the book works for very young children, but it is like doing a frothy tale about Henry VIII and sort of forgetting to mention the beheading of Anne Boleyn!
Reading the book, a historian may disapprove of its interpretation. For instance, the crucial Battle of Khanwa against the Rajputs is not mentioned. Even Babur’s death is sort of explained away without actually saying it happened. Also, we don’t find out that Babur took a dislike to India and thought it was an awful land full of ugly people and tasteless fruits. Or that he did talk of jihad and think of himself as a protector of the faith.
Now who says history has to be all solemn facts? Why can’t going back to our past be fun? I am all for books that bring history to children in any and every form. We just don’t do enough of them. If you accept that this book is a sort of fantasized history, it is a great way to introduce a child under ten to our past. I mean, a boy called Tiger and his horse named Gul and their adventures would really make for a great children’s tale.
By Subhadra Sen Gupta
Author: Parvati Sharma
Illustrator: Urmimala Nag
Penguin Books and Good Earth, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction