The Bahadur Shah we do not know

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

A Mughal painting of Akbar with Jesuits. The Great Mughals are well known in history, but few people are aware of the story of Gujarat’s Sultan Bahadur Shah.

A Mughal painting of Akbar with Jesuits. The Great Mughals are well known in history, but few people are aware of the story of Gujarat’s Sultan Bahadur Shah. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

This fictionalised narration of the life of the 16th-century monarch of Gujarat is enjoyable but does not provide a coherent narrative.

The year 1526 was a watershed in the history of India. It was the year of the First Battle of Panipat, when Zahiruddin Babur defeated the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Ibrahim Lodhi, and founded the Mughal dynasty. The Mughals went on to form a part of India’s most colourful, extravagant period in history: an era of cultural efflorescence and impressive art and architecture. A larger-than-life dynasty that drew the attention of faraway lands.

Bahadur Shah of Gujarat: A King in Search of a Kingdom
By Kalpish Ratna 
Simon & Schuster India, 2023
Pages: 395 pages
Price: Rs.809

What few people know is that 1526 also marked the ascension to the throne of another historical figure, Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Caught between the Portuguese—then tightening their hold on western India—and the Mughals, Bahadur Shah is an enigmatic figure, a man of whom too little is known, far less remembered. As Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, writing as Kalpish Ratna, mention in the introduction to their novel Bahadur Shah of Gujarat: A King in Search of a Kingdom, most people coming across Bahadur Shah’s name confuse him with Bahadur Shah II “Zafar”, the last of the Mughals.

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This fictionalised retelling of Bahadur Shah’s story sets out to explore his life and times. The book, divided into five parts, does not go the usual way of biographies: in fact, Bahadur Shah does not put in an appearance until the fifth chapter, “14 February 1537”. The first four chapters are all quite different from each other in style, setting, and narrative structure. The first chapter, for instance, centres round a village in North Konkan, its inhabitants trying as best as they can to deal with the firangi. The second chapter, narrated as a fast-paced, larger-than-life performance by a professional storyteller, a daastaango perhaps, is about Babur, “The Shining Sword of Samarqand” that came sweeping down on Hindustan. Chapter 3, “Hokka”, takes the form of a poem about (and narrated by) the two-headed doum palm of Diu, known locally as hokka:

“I’m prized here by only one man,

I’ve known him for years, and not a year goes by without his coming to see me.

Like me, he’s two-headed.

I’m the only two-headed palm in this part of the world, and he’s the only two-headed man I know.

Like a hokka, he’s hired for impossibilities.”

Just when the reader begins to wonder which way this novel is going, there comes Chapter 4, “Diu”, a somewhat dry essay on the history of this much-coveted, intensely fought-over port.

Too many threads in narrative

Is Bahadur Shah of Gujarat poetry? Is it a story? Is it factual essay? Is it adventure, ribaldry, bloodshed, politics?

It is a combination of all these and then some more. The canvas is enormous, stretching from Delhi to Chittorgarh, Diu to Shashti Pranth (now on the fringes of Mumbai), even going as far as Lisbon. The cast of characters is proportionately vast, reading like a who’s who of Indian politics in the early 16th century: Ibrahim Lodhi, Rana Sanga, Babur, Humayun, Afonso de Albuquerque, Malik Ayaaz. There are other famous names (Bhakti poet Meera Bai among them) and an array of people not so well-known: diplomats, warriors, cooks, librarians, interpreters. Plus, of course, there are fictitious characters.

There is war, revenge, lust, some farcical humour, and there are conspiracies galore. Most of it is based on fact, on events that actually happened, but narrated with a hefty dose of imagination thrown in. For instance, the attempted poisoning of Babur by Ibrahim Lodhi’s mother, Dilawar Begum, is narrated with a long prelude. It is heavily embellished with concocted details and some fairly juvenile humour: the cooks use unconventional (if that!) ingredients, the “poison” is not quite toxic after all; and the results are bizarre.

The scope of this book is so huge that it is hardly surprising that it ends up being confusing. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that the authors seem to have tried to include just about every aspect of Bahadur Shah’s struggle to get to and retain his throne. The conspiracies, plots, dialogues, and events are multifarious, and they are not tackled in a chronological or even logical fashion. Random chapters wander off here and there, telling an anecdote from the point of view of, say, Ibrahim Lodhi or Sikandar Shah (Bahadur Shah’s elder brother). Other chapters are devoted to a jewelled kamarband, to the Kohinoor, Meera Bai, the hokka. People reminisce, pontificate, and have conversations that are often obscure, leaving the reader baffled.

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There are footnotes scattered through the pages and copious endnotes for almost each chapter, but these are often carelessly dealt with. The footnotes, which mostly explain a Hindustani/Persian word, are somewhat arbitrary, often explaining one fairly common word but omitting another. Some are repetitive, others are mirrored in the endnotes.

If the objective was to convey a sense of the turmoil and chaos of the era, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat achieves it. The best way to enjoy this book is to savour its language, to appreciate the somewhat quirky humour of it, and to take it one chapter at a time. To understand the many threads criss-crossing the life of its protagonist and get a firm grasp on what really happened may be a bit too much to ask of it.

Madhulika Liddle is a novelist and short story writer.

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