“All is fair in dreams and fiction,” reads a line from the first Prologue to Charu Nivedita’s Conversations with Aurangzeb. The book has six prologues, numbered from zero to five. An apt set-up for a text that will leave you wondering whether you dreamt up at least some of the absurdity that you encounter within it. The book, translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, does a wonderful job recreating the humour in the original. Bitingly funny and utterly unexpected, Nivedita and Krishnan (or Baahubilli as the author fondly calls her in the text) have, together, pushed the boundaries of what we know as history, fiction, and indeed, the art of conversation.

What’s the truth?

The book begins with Nivedita visiting an Aghori in order to talk to the spirits of various Mughal emperors as part of his research for another book. That this premise is the least incongruous part of the story should tell you enough. The various emperors Nivedita attempts to talk to are quickly elbowed out by an angry Aurangzeb, who wishes to correct contemporary history’s writing of his character. An ingenious device that allows Nivedita to challenge politically fraught histories.

Was Aurangzeb indeed a bigoted mass murderer? Or was he a devout, politically shrewd warrior? Was Akbar actually the benevolent, tolerant ruler as we have been taught? The book raises these questions repeatedly, only to sidestep them and embark on tangential histories, driving home to the reader that these are not questions with simple yes or no answers. Fiction is used to question the glorification and vilification of historical figures. The authorial character is front and centre in the book, suggesting that the real subject of history is the historian.

Aurangzeb’s own accounts of himself are (almost tiresomely) defensive, and yet, they are full of contradictions. The conversational form allows for gaps in the narrative. Nivedita is not seeking to write a complete story, but merely to encounter a past that is all the more real precisely because it is fictional.

And yet, even as the book acknowledges that history will always be incomplete, there are moments when Nivedita almost half-heartedly attempts to escape these gaps. Towards the end, we have a chapter where the author converses with Jahanara Begum – a stand-in for all of the Mughal women whose voices have gone unheard. Why, I could not help but wonder. She contributes very little by way of enlightening us on Aurangzeb’s own story and very much resembles the token representation that woke Twitterati crave.

The book then closes with Aurangzeb’s poignant retelling of the ending of the Mughal Empire. Here, we also see Aurangzeb directing the author to give space to Jahanara Begum’s own story – an uncharacteristically apologetic explanation for the preceding chapter. This stands as a rather anachronistic conclusion to a narrative that otherwise does not inflict contemporary moralities upon the past. This ending falls a little flat after the delightful ride that the rest of the book takes us on.

A space for disagreements

While the book questions what we know as history, it is also equally critical of the present moment. Nivedita is angry about the woeful lack of recognition for Indian writers in regional languages. The character of Aurangzeb serves as a vehicle for the writer’s frustration with the intolerant climate plaguing India’s literary and social landscapes. The text weaves in and interprets excerpts from the Quran, the Mahabharata, and various Sufi poets to challenge both the pseudo-secular and hateful rhetoric prevailing in the country today. These sections, often punctuated by the author’s own anxiety about writing something “controversial”, discomfort the reader, reminding us of the importance of what we choose to read and write.

On a more annoying note for the Gen-Z reader in me, Nivedita discusses how the MeToo movement has him afraid (of what, I could not help but wonder). But the book does not hold back, it is not seeking to assuage the offended. You may not and probably will not agree with at least some parts of the author’s story, but nowhere does the writer demand that you do. In fact, he brings in his friend, Kokkarakko (a beloved character from his previous books) primarily to question and ridicule some of his own choices. Some stories he dismisses even as he is writing them. The book invites and makes space for disagreement.

What I enjoyed most about the book was how unusual it is. Its humour is a mix of political commentary, cynical frustration, and absurd plot-lines. It is full of whimsical choices – Aurangzeb’s spirit can read the writer’s often profane thoughts. The translator and the writer’s various friends walk in and out of the narrative, with no apparent purpose. In a more ludicrous moment, Aurangzeb transports the writer and his friend to Santiago, Chile.

I found my readerly imagination continuously stretched thin – it is no wonder that Nivedita is an icon of the Tamil postmodern movement. Few stories and writers have left me so bewildered and amused. The absurdity of the plot allows Nivedita to address thought-provoking questions about history, fiction, and politics with a certain lightness. It rebels against the constraints of both history and the present moment by refusing to take either too seriously. I could not help but get the sense that fun as the book was to read, it must have been infinitely more fun to write and translate

Conversations with Aurangzeb: A Novel, Charu Nivedita, translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, HarperCollins India.