Book review

Audrey Truschke’s ‘Aurangzeb’ engages with (and demolishes) WhatsApp history

Her book on the Mughal emperor is thorough, readable and engages with popular narratives, a welcome change from inkhorn history written by academics.

Indian English uses the word “politics” in a curiously pejorative way. One such popular usage is in the phrase “politicisation of history”. Of course, as Mani Shankar Aiyer once snapped in a television debate, “If not in history, where else will politics be? Biology?”

Aiyer’s peevishness here is well placed. History is joined at the hip with politics. It, for example, shapes modern political identities. Can one even begin to imagine nationalism without the discipline of history? A shared – if imagined – past is more important to the creation of a nation-state than an army. History then is, truly a public discipline.

Yet, in the recent past, academic history has withdrawn from its role of informing the public, retreating into a university echo chamber. The fact that academics are terrible writers isn’t a coincidence – in many cases, academic work simply isn’t written to be read. A system that Harvard historian Jill Lepore memorably described as having “produced a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose”.

History in the social media age

Of course, people still have a need for history. And in the age of the internet, the lack of readable academic history is easily overcome. In India, specifically, the past few years have seen an explosion of what I like to call Oakist history, after the prolific writer PN Oak. Oak has written about how almost everything one can imagine – from the Taj Mahal, to the Kaaba to the Vatican – has Hindu roots. Pseudo-history such as this has spread like wildfire on social media, pushed by that most powerful of mediums: the WhatsApp group.

In this, Audrey Truschke’s history of Aurangzeb, titled, well, Aurangzeb, comes as a welcome change, a work written explicitly for the popular sphere. Truschke teaches South Asian history at Rutgers University in the US. In this book, she takes on the incredible amount of pseudo history on the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb floating about on the internet. So effective has this demonisation been that an “Aurangzeb Road” in New Delhi – named by the British Raj – was renamed in 2015.

Aurangzeb wasn’t a bigot?

Truschke is quite clear that hers is not a simple history of the emperor. It is a rebuttal of this pseudo history around Aurangzeb. The subtitle of the book itself – “The man and the myth”– makes that clear. She does what she sets out to do rather successfully, writing a remarkably lucid book that takes Hindutva history head on. And as one might imagine, when faced with the full onslaught of a trained historian, these myths crumble rather easily.

Reaching into a rich range of Persian language sources, Trushke produces this gem of a quote. Faced with a petition to put in a religious test for Mughal service, Aurangzeb replies thus:

“What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry? For you is your religion and for me is mine. If this rule [suggested by you] were established, it would be my duty to extirpate all the (Hindu) Rajahs and their followers. Wise men disapprove of the removal from office of able officers.”

While it is unfair – and in fact a bit silly – to expect any cogent concept of secularism in the seventeenth century, Aurangzeb’s letter quoted above, it might be noted, would hold up even in modern India.

A fleshed-out emperor

Truschke also produces a range of sources to show how simply reducing Aurangzeb to his religion is inaccurate. Why was the Mughal state under Aurangzeb unable to absorb the rising Maratha power under Shivaji? Pop history focuses on faith, ignoring the fact that Hindu employment in the Mughal state rose to its highest ever level under Aurangzeb.

Truschke points to more banal reasons: Shivaji was singled out not for his religion but for his lack of courtly Persian culture, then shared by much of the Mughal elite, Hindu and Muslim. Rajputs serving in the Deccan also had many unkind things to say about the local Deccani population, Truschke points out. Moreover, Aurangzeb’s general in the Maratha wars was a Hindu Rajput: Jai Singh. A Hindu-Muslim binary, so common to contemporary India, is therefore difficult to draw.

Was Aurangzeb a fanatic, a seventeenth century version of a modern communalist? Truschke, in fact, shows that he conducted intellectual discussions with Bairagi Hindus and showered them with gifts. “[Ellora] is one of the finely crafted marvels of the real, transcendent Artisan [i.e God],” remarked Aurangzeb. The Mughal state under him would donate land to Hindu and Jain temples and protect religious leaders, leading to one Jain work praising Aurangzeb as a “brave and powerful king”.

Temple destruction is one of the most popular ways to attack Aurangzeb (and any other Muslim ruler). Truschke builds on the scholarship of Richard Eaton to show how misleading the charge is. Temples under Mughal dominion were rarely touched and the few that were attacked were done so for political not religious reasons.

Academia versus social media

Truschke makes no bones about the fact that her book is responding to popular demonisation of Aurangzeb – an admirable endeavour in today’s rather vitiated climate. “The Aurangzeb of popular memory bears only a faint resemblance to the historical emperor,” the book remarks understatedly. “Be sceptical of communal visions of Aurangzeb that flood the popular sphere,” Truschke warns going on to point out – with, one imagines, a bit of her tongue in cheek – that India’s social media historians have no training in reading premodern Persian.

In the interest of readability, Truschke’s book even does away with footnotes, preferring to include 24 pages of notes for the more intrepid reader.

Aurangzeb isn’t Truschke’s only foray into shaping debate around Mughal India. She has a regular presence on social media, where she patiently rebuts the trolls, making her somewhat of a hate figure for India’s Hindutva wing on social media.

Between her book and her social media presence, Truschke’s model of engagement is something that other academics and, especially, historians would do well to emulate. There’s too much going on in the world to be cooped up in an ivory tower. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, professors, and wade into the muck.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, Audrey Truschke, Viking, Penguin Random House India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.