At the outset, let us acknowledge that it may be tempting, even in 2022, to send popular histories of the Mughal empire into battle to defend an historical India: that is, the one we imagine through reasoned interpretation, rather than the one crafted in violent fantasies of Hindu-majority victimhood. This temptation is precisely what Akbar of Hindustan, Parvati Sharma’s anecdotal, not-quite-intimate history of that empire’s most energetic builder resists. Sharma’s literary instincts guide this book as firmly as they did her 2018 biography of Akbar’s son and successor, Jahangir. It is a book of the present time, but it avoids being about the present.

A novelist who can work in the compassionate vein as well as the comic one, Sharma needn’t have picked Akbar for a subject at all. He is a monument more than a person, and the challenge of writing about him can seem more like a project of ambition than of truth-seeking. In the clamour of war and mass cruelty blaring through the world, the story of an imperialist from six hundred years ago runs, after all, the risk of creating little more than a remote clang-clang: some master’s tools, building some master’s house.

Akbar is more remote and complicated than Aurangzeb or Shah Jahan, who were both polarised and polarising political actors even in their own times. No document of Akbar’s inner life approaches the vivid immediacy of his grandfather Babur’s memoir. The outer life is a subject fit for libraries, not single volumes. In the twenty-first century, Akbar’s storytellers must contend not only with each other but with how large he looms over popular culture, including movies and TV shows. He lives on in myth and legend.

Akbar’s times

A simpler version of Akbar of Hindustan would see its job as synthesising these few hundred Akbars into a man for this moment. In Jahangir, Sharma recreated the widely misunderstood life of her subject in something of a modern vein, making him seem closer to us than ever before. But with Akbar she takes charge of material that even his nearest contemporaries could not simplify. No single volume can defend him from wilful misunderstanding, and any new insight about him may now need the work of a lifetime.

This may be why the book’s project feels like it’s about familiarising us with Akbar’s times, even more than with his life. For long stretches of her book, Sharma writes about Akbar through the people around him. His father and his son commandeer our attention at either end of the story. In between, the stars of the Akbarid universe scatter their light in procession: statesmen like Bairam Khan and dissidents like Ali Quli Shaibani, forgotten challengers like Mirza Hakim, Akbar’s half-brother, and– – where sources make it possible– – the women of the court, Akbar’s “cupolas of chastity,” as political, intellectual and emotional beings.

Akbar of Hindustan is, substantially, a literary exercise in reading Akbar through those who wrote about him when he was alive. Two towering portrayals of Akbar emerged from his era. The Akbarnama was composed by Abul Fazl – “our own Abul Fazl,” Sharma calls him, adopting for ourselves the beloved friend and chronicler who named Akbar shahinshah, the king of kings. And there was Badauni, the bitter critic who wrote in secret to leave us a record of Akbar’s heterodoxy, his infidelity to principle and his instrumentalisation of people. He was Abul Fazl’s enemy, but also the one who wrote, in resignation, that they were “loaves out of the same oven.”

Sharma doesn’t try to compete with these voices any more than Dante sought to do with Virgil. They emerge as vibrant guides through their vanished world. So does Banarasidas, the Jain poet whose life history spans the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. So too does the Persian Shirazi, with his unforgettable glimpse of the young king’s court, so free of etiquette that the writer “did not find anyone having the appearance of a king,” and was appalled to spot, at last, the twenty-year old, head tilted to rest on the hand he’d put on a friend’s shoulder. “I could guess he was the king,” Shirazi says, “but the men continued to stand around rubbing shoulders with each other.”

No reconciliation

A historian’s work is to interpret these sources, but Sharma arranges them in a symphony of voices, conducting them into a half-joyous, half-melancholic harmony. She does not mediate their contradictions or rationalise their absurdities, though she contextualises them with wit and clarity. Her curiosity indulges our own. It’s usually embarrassing when academics turn to speculative writing (“He would have thought x,” or “She would have turned to y”), a concession to our base desire as readers to want to know things. But in Sharma’s book the wicked “would” arguably works more successfully.

“There is no record of how long Akbar watched them burn,” she tells us about the skirmish of Paronkh, Akbar’s first victory as a frontline commander-in-chief, “whether he basked in the glow of victory, or retreated as the scent of burning flesh filled the air.” It’s a dreadful scene, full of contradictions. We can’t know what its protagonist thought. But in Sharma’s telling it isn’t because of the remoteness of his time, so much as the difficulty of the situation. Would a soldier today know what to think and say, to record and to suppress?

Akbar of Hindustan isn’t trying to reassure us with the complacency of knowing things. We can know them from any competent biography of the man. It tries, instead, for ambiguity, which we are used to thinking of as a hallmark of our time. But it was also, and perhaps especially, a hallmark of Akbar’s. He was both Abul Fazl’s Akbar and Badauni’s, after all. He was both warlord and statesman, loving and aloof, Muslim and something unlike other Muslims. A glib writer might easily reconcile all these contradictions. But Sharma’s book reminds us, more humbly, that very few human beings are reconciled in themselves. Akbar’s life doesn’t lend itself to glibness.

Authoritarians want every question in the world to have a single correct answer. The Akbar of Sharma’s book is certainly a standardiser. He establishes law, bureaucracy, and governing philosophy, because there’s no other way to control an empire. But he is also, unavoidably, a seeker. He listens to Catholics and argues with imams, forces poor Badauni to translate the Mahabharata (“puerile,” the master laments) and is as free with his doubts as his certainties. He had no time to waste on crafting simple explanations for the stupendously big tent he raised over Hindustan.

Last flourish?

The ambivalence in Akbar of Hindustan feels like the opposite of a biographer’s task. But this was perhaps necessary for the book to exist in a situation Sharma’s careful, sometimes equivocating storytelling doesn’t directly confront. “did u enjoy the book,” a friend texted me as I was writing this review. “sort of,” I texted back. “mostly i was very sad that it comes in(sic) such a time.” I had to follow that up. “but it allows space for that.”

In 2022, the only people who spend more time thinking about Mughal emperors than historians are Hindu fundamentalists. It’s been easy to think of the minor blossoming of popular writing about these kings as the defiant reaction of the former category to the latter. It’s more difficult, but perhaps necessary, to imagine that these books might be the last flourish of intellectual delight in re-examinations of the period that we will see for some time to come. The thug operatives currently playing havoc with Muslim lives in India have no interest in reading Audrey Truschke, Ruby Lal or Ira Mukhoty. Many may not know these writers exist. But the future they envision is simply not one in which the books of such authors are produced and discussed within India.

Historians also write for a future they will never see, though. So do imaginative writers like Sharma. She doesn’t use Akbar to evoke the idea of a different India. Her book does not argue against the realities of our time any more than it tries to argue with the 1500s. That was also a time of catastrophe and mourning, not least for the Mughals themselves. A few of its beauties have been preserved for the ages. Sharma’s book doesn’t try at all to strike a balance between these things. It may, in itself, be a record for future readers more than current ones. The descendants of this world may read it and learn that, even in this place and time, we could make some beautiful things.

Akbar of Hindustan

Akbar of Hindustan, Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut Books.