In October, as winter began to set, Akbar and Salim took one last look at their beloved saffron fields and returned from Kashmir to Lahore, unaware that the family was about to suffer its first real tragedy.
Murad’s nine-year-old son Rustam died.
Akbar was so inordinately fond of his grandchildren that even Abu’l Fazl is reduced to plain-speaking: “the affectionate sovereign loved grandchildren more than sons,” he writes, before inscribing another bit of revealing observation, “Rustam was habituated to exalted love so that the counsels of father or mother did not become the vesture of his heart.” In other words, not only did Akbar clearly prefer his grandsons to his sons, his clear preference allowed the grandchildren to disregard, perhaps even scorn, their own parents, knowing they had their indulgent and powerful grandfather on their side.
Even the imperial family’s lexicon betrays an odd imbalance in these relationships, and the fissures this might have created: there was place for only one shah – baba, king-father, and that was Akbar; the grandchildren would refer to their own fathers as shah-bhai, king- brother.
One night, writes Abu’l Fazl, Rustam’s “stomach became disordered, and he grew delirious”. Two days later, the boy was dead. The court and harem wept for days. Far away in the south, Murad drank even more in his grief. Of Salim’s reaction, there is no record. Did he send his brother a message of condolence? Did he mourn his nephew’s death? There is only one, passing mention of Rustam in Salim’s memoirs – about two decades after Rustam died, Salim was touring Gujarat and happened to have a drinking party in Rustam Bari, a garden made by Murad for his son. As it happened, the governor of Ahmedabad at the time was called Rustam, too, and so, “because of the coincidence of names”, Salim gave him the garden.
Clearly, Salim did not remember little Rustam with any great sentiment; nor did he, in what are otherwise expansive memoirs, record the grief of the court at his passing. It is unlikely, however, that he did not notice how Akbar was raising his sons’ sons – and equally unlikely that he wasn’t beginning to worry about it.
Rustam wasn’t Akbar’s only favoured grandchild, after all. There was also ten-year-old Khusro, Salim’s eldest son, who would soon be grown and locked in unhappy competition with his father long after the man who invented the whole game was gone. And there was five- year-old Khurram, the boy who brought joy not only to his adoptive mother but increasingly to the emperor, too. Often, writes Salim, Akbar would say of Khurram, “I consider him my true son.”
Whether Salim was flattered by such attention for his boys or beginning to resent it, they were not, as yet, any kind of threat. Murad and Daniyal, meanwhile, were both far away from court and doing little to distinguish themselves. For the moment, in fact, the greatest threat to Salim’s chances was no one from the family at all, but rather the doggedly loyal Abu’l Fazl.
It isn’t clear how such animosity erupted between the two men. It was Abu’l Fazl, after all, who helped patch things up between Akbar and Salim when the prince misbehaved en route to Kashmir. He was a favoured courtier and, had things gone well, he might have become Salim’s favoured conduit to the emperor’s ear. It was not as if the historian had any private axe to grind with the prince.
On the other hand, Abu’l Fazl was devoted to Akbar, and therefore to Akbar’s happiness; his fondest hope, when Salim was born, was that the prince would please his father – and Salim had grown remarkably disinclined to do so.
In 1598, for example, there was an opportunity to conquer Turan, a kingdom in Central Asia that Akbar had long had his eye on. The emperor decided to send Salim, who was then almost thirty and had embarrassingly little conquest to his credit, but Salim refused. Here, finally, a note of disapproval creeps into Abu’l Fazl’s narrative: “That pleasure-loving youth,” he writes, “could not wean his heart from India.”
But it was around this time, too, that Salim began to realise that his pleasures, having consumed most of his youth, might soon deprive him of an old age.
As Salim tells it, after nine years of untrammelled drinking, “things got so bad that in my hangovers my hands shook and trembled so badly I couldn’t drink myself but had to have others help me.”
While it’s almost unbelievable that Salim, at the height of his addiction, was ever sober enough to have a hangover, it’s miraculous that, in the haze of his drink, he understood the danger he was in and managed to do something about it. And yet, he did. In his most wretched state, Salim called a doctor, the very Hakim Humam whom Akbar had accused of conspiring to poison him. The doctor told him “with no beating around the bush, ‘Highness, the way you’re drinking, in another six months – God forbid – things will be so bad it will be beyond remedy.’”
Addicts are not known, however, for their ability to follow doctors’ advice. Like many before and after – like his own brothers – Salim might have shrugged at the hakim’s words, called for another drink and died within the year. What saved Salim was not the hakim’s dire prognostication alone, but also the emergence, late in the day, of that strength of will that had enabled his forefathers’ conquests – combined with another family trait, the obsessive-compulsive desire to measure, categorise and record.
Slowly and methodically, Salim began to drink less. He substituted some of the alcohol with philonium (an all-spice drug of opium, saffron, spikenard, honey, etc.); he diluted his spirits with grape wine (“two parts wine to one part spirits”); he drank only in the evenings (except the eve of Friday, a sacred day); and over the course of seven years, he went from twenty cups of double-distilled liquor to six cups of fortified wine supplement with two and a half grams of opium.
Salim did, after all, want to live and to rule; he had ambition and also the will to do something about it; and he would not be indebted to a flattering courtier with a knack for lofty prose.
The unsuspecting Abu’l Fazl, meanwhile, thought he had built himself a “choice abode in the pleasant land of Peace with all”. Who would have thought its roof was about to fall on his head?
For some lapse on his part (the historian does not, as ever, specify) Salim grew angry and his anger “blazed forth” fanned by “base and envious people”. Salim’s rage alone might not have troubled Abu’l Fazl, however, if the “untrue reports” that fuelled it had not reached Akbar’s ear and – worst of all – found audience with him. Hurt and humiliated, Abu’l Fazl went into a deep sulk.
“I withdrew my hand from everything and tucked my foot into my shirt,” he writes. “I shut my door in the face of both stranger and acquaintance.” When Akbar called him to court and told him to continue with his usual duties, Abu’l Fazl declared he would only be able to render formal service, that he couldn’t possibly summon his usual zeal until a thorough enquiry had cleared him of all suspicion. Akbar tried to calm him down and dismiss his histrionics, which only agitated Abu’l Fazl more. “I meditated my own destruction,” he writes in the throes of pathos, “and sometimes I thought of becoming a vagabond.”
Eventually, however, the scholar put aside thoughts of suicide and exile and undertook the somewhat more hopeful task of casting his own horoscope.
When the stars revealed that soon the “veil” that had obscured the truth would be removed and that Akbar would, once again, recognise his friend for who he was, Abu’l Fazl cheered up and went back to court.
For the moment all was well, but this was not the end of the story.
What caused this temporary rift between Akbar and Abu’l Fazl isn’t really clear. Henry Beveridge, translator of the Akbarnama, gathers from various sources that Salim may have insinuated to his father that Abu’l Fazl wasn’t quite as reverential towards the emperor (and particularly the emperor’s new religion) as he made himself out to be. The accusations included making copies of the Quran and continuing to treat it as a divine text – neither of which was explicitly forbidden but certainly not expected of the emperor’s closest adviser and disciple. Besides, Abu’l Fazl’s father, Sheikh Mubarak, had written a commentary on the Quran and not mentioned Akbar in it, a lapse that could not have gone unnoticed. Minor faults though these were, they gave Salim an opportunity, and the slight doubt that he managed to create in his father’s mind was enough to make Akbar contemplate the idea of a short separation between Abu’l Fazl and the court.
So, a few months after their astrologically determined reconciliation, when reports of Murad’s health became troubling, Akbar sent Abu’l Fazl to the Deccan to bring Murad home.
Abu’l Fazl was acutely aware that he was being got rid of. “Inasmuch as the writer...always held to his own opinion without respect of persons, and represented in an eloquent manner what was good for the State, those who sought for an opportunity and were crooked in their ways represented their own interested views. In consequence of their intrigues I was sent off...to bring Prince Sultan Murad.”
Dutiful and possibly not disinclined to take a break from the conspiracies of court for the glamour of distant battlefields, Abu’l Fazl began his journey south.
He never came back.
Excerpted with permission from Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut.