Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

We’ve all grown up hearing hate stories about Aurangzeb Alamgir. We’re firm believers that he’s the man responsible for the fall of the Mughal empire and we’ve heard stories of his unfaithfulness towards the peacock throne. There is a hatred for Aurangzeb pan India, for him being a cruel and ruthless ruler, when Akbar was far more ruthless. There are misconceptions about Aurangzeb that have spread, and Audrey Truschke tries to break these wrong notions apart with her newest book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth.

Audrey traces the reason for the generalised hatred to the 20th century historians, as typifying the extreme despotism and religious bent of Islamic rulers, particularly in India, ruling as they were over a substantially non-Muslim population. A considerable part of any interest in Aurangzeb is driven by the common stereotypes that have been perpetuated about him. From Jadunath Sarkar to Jawaharlal Nehru and many others.

Audrey Truschke, in Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, is at pains to demonstrate just how Aurangzeb has been repeatedly vilified as an archetypical Islamic despot, known for his religious bigotry, cruelty and thirst for empire. But, she says emphatically, and as my Mughal history college professor repeatedly pointed out, that amounts to judging him by contemporary standards of what constitutes acceptable state and moral behaviour.

Clearly, the emperor Aurangzeb was too multifaceted to be reduced to a single personal/religious identity. Indeed, no ruler ever is. Each ruler is faced with multiple, contradictory choices and is obliged to find an equilibrium among them. Sometimes the equilibrium succeeds; at times it doesn’t. This is the recurring theme, the author has portrayed throughout the book.

The noticeable thing about the narrative that Audrey unfolds for us is its honest opinions. She, not for once, tries to be biased towards Aurangzeb in narrating his merits. She just documents. And that includes both merits and demerits. She condemns the acts of the emperor that are condemnable and commends the acts that are commendable. This is and should be the true nature of a historian. Documentation. But, unfortunately such is not the case with the historians pre 21st century. Thus goes Churchill’s quote — “History is written by the victors”.

But amongst all this, there’s a slight problem in the narrative as well. While telling Aurangzeb’s story and showing his kind and polite side, her occasionally less than heuristic approach to humanising the other major characters of the time. Apart from Shivaji, very few biographical details are provided of other significant figures, like Dara Shukoh, Murad, Tej Bahadur, the major Rajput rulers, or the sultans of Bijapur and Golconda.

I’m going with 3
½/5 stars for Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth. If you want to break out of the misconceptions about Aurangzeb that have bundled up in your mind, go have a read.