Were the Great Mughals able to look into the future and see the mahant of the Gorakhnath Math attempt to rewrite the history of Allahabad, no two would react identically. All six, from Babur to Aurangzeb, would recognise it as a temporal threat, of course. But considerably fewer would find their personal faith offended. A couple would roll their eyes at the clunky substitution of an elegant old name with a Sanskritic neologism. Some would seek vengeance. Others might devise strategies to co-opt the wielder of such brute force – before seeking vengeance.

One may have felt a special pang. That would be Nuruddin Muhammad Salim, who started to call himself “Jahangir”, seizer of the world, long before his father Akbar died and unwillingly left him the throne. Life had started well for “Sheikhu baba”, as Akbar called his longed-for firstborn. But each proved a millstone around the other’s neck. Over the prolonged breakdown of their relationship, one of the sanctuaries Salim seized for himself was a fortress town that Akbar had built at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers, and named “Ilahabad”.

An unconventional tale

If it seems like too rash a flight of fancy to imagine a Mughal emperor’s heart skipping a beat, wait until you read Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, an audacious, conversational history of the fourth emperor’s life and times. In a year rich with popular studies of the Mughals, Sharma’s stands out for the risks it takes in forsaking the measured caution of scholarly research for the vivid, humanistic tone of imaginative literature.

It shouldn’t work as well as it does. Even professional historians who stray too close to the shallows of popular history writing grow awkward, writing speculatively about personality and circumstance in place of the dry incremental advance of historical knowledge for which they’ve been trained. Jahangir breezes past convention and treats the emperor as a literary character: ambiguous, self-contradicting, unheroic. Salim “lacked his father’s flaming resolve”, Sharma tells us early in the book, but he “did possess a kind of dogged determination, a stubborn refusal to bow out of the race”.

Jahangir contemplating a portrait of Akbar holding a globe, c. 1614. Attributed to Abu’l Hasan and Hashim.

His prosperous, even vibrant reign was put in the shade by Akbar, whose magnificence, Sharma tells us, was Jahangir’s “joy and eternal torment”. Salim’s own children called Salim “shah-bhai”, their noble brother, because Akbar had to have the honour of being “shah-baba”, their regal father. The sheen of Salim’s reign may also have faded under the onslaught of his shrewd successor, Shah Jahan, who had to rewrite some of his father’s history to legitimise his own political ascendance. Sharma spends rather less time on this, more interested in Jahangir’s afterlife than its preconditions.

A sum of his predecessors

There was something of each of his grand forebears in him. Like Babur, he possessed a talent for critical – even self-critical – reflection that allowed him to write a rich and personal memoir, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Like Humayun, he could command friendship and loyalty from the right people, especially the powerful ladies of the Mughal zenana, who interceded for him when his relations with Akbar were at their lowest ebb. Like Akbar himself, there was something of the mystic in Jahangir, a quality that still shows in the superb art and literature of his court.

Poor Salim, we might say, borrowing a leaf out of Sharma’s book. Spoiled in childhood, he grew up to be impetuous and high-handed. His father and son both outdid him on the battlefield, but his streak of gory cruelty – well-examined in the book – was alien to both of them. Then there was the family tendency to substance addiction, which rendered him an inveterate drunk for much of his life. However worthy he may have been in spite of all this, his loved ones would always outdo him in strength of character.

There was also a third person who outshone him. Reader, he married her. Jahangir was forty-two when he met Nur Jahan, who went on to become the closest thing to a queen regnant in Mughal history. For the rest of his life she would match or exceed Jahangir’s political talent. Their story has been romanticised beyond recognition in public memory. Her historical reputation fluctuates, too: two books published this year alone describe her as a peerless talent and “one of the most ruthless schemers in history” respectively. But her charm, her competence, and the happiness of their marriage are doubted by few, and Sharma, taking recourse to romantic comedy, pronounces their bond as one of “sustainable fondness”.

Novelistic but critical

Jahangir becomes the biography of a man powerful in his own right, as well as an inquiry into why he became unknowable in modern memory – a particularly interesting question at a time when the histories of rulers like Akbar and Aurangzeb are bitterly contested. Sharma’s talent allows her to balance a tone that’s not just casual but downright personal, on the tightrope of historical argument.

For all its novelistic flourishes (a prince is sent off with advice “worthy of Polonius”; an amir who hesitates to dine with a white man displays an “endearingly secret curiosity”), Jahangir is not a novelistic portrait, but a critical one. It achieves balance not due to its fidelity to provable historical fact, but from Sharma’s sympathy for both the genius and the limits of her subject, and from her talent for close reading.

Jahangir wants to show us how intimately recognisable the past is to those of us who are shaped by it. This may arguably be a form of naïveté. What is a portrait of Jahangir to men who would like to undo not just his father’s Ilahabad, but also his son’s Taj Mahal? Perhaps not much, but history, even when it isn’t written in stone or marble, isn’t just the creation of memory; it is its progenitor. In this respect, the Mughals have had a golden year, beginning with Audrey Truschke’s pointed and argumentative life of Aurangzeb. Sharma’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literary record of their Hindustan, which is still ours.

Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut.