As the name suggests, this book is a contemporary biographical sketch of Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The recent narratives concerning Dara limit him as a spiritual person. But this book aims to present an overall personality of Dara and tries to throw light on that period’s polity with the help of several primary and secondary sources of history.
The author explains how Dara’s life stimulates curiosity among people, even now. She says the battle of succession fought among the brothers – Dara, Aurangzeb, Murad and Shuja – “is an origin myth of the subcontinent’s present, seen as a crucial turning point in the progression of South Asian history”. She asks if Dara’s real identity is confined to this narrative or were there layers to the man considered to be a promoter of inter-faith harmony between Hindus and Muslims and evaluated primarily as a failed statesman. Since he was considered as the heir apparent to the Mughal throne, what would have been the polity if he had become the emperor?
The book starts with a fictional narration of Dara’s trial in Aurangzeb’s court where he was asked whether he believed the Hindu faith was as valid as Islam? Dara replies, “Who cares which door you open to come into the light?” and shows his ring engraved with Allah on one side and Prabhu on the other. Seeing this, the prosecutor declares that Dara has, for a long time, stayed away from the pure path of Islam. Thereafter, Aurangzeb orders his armed slaves to execute Dara. The book is divided into various timelines concerning important events of Dara’s life.
In the first chapter, Supriya Gandhi describes the military campaign against the ruler of the neighborhood kingdom, Rana Amar Singh. Jahangir sent his 21-year-old son Khurram (later known as Shah Jahan) to conclude the campaign. Dara was born as the third child of Khurram and Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal) after this campaign in 1615. This chapter describes the polity of the Mughal empire and Indian subcontinent during the birth of Dara and Shah Jahan’s other children including Aurangzeb, till 1622. It ends with Jahangir sending Khurram and his brother, Khusrav to Burhanpur to handle the Deccan expedition. The second chapter starts with the death of Khusrav under mysterious circumstances. It marks the transition of the new polity surrounding the tension between Khurram and Jahangir. Dara and his siblings were taken as hostages by Jahangir’s order as a punishment to Khurram.
In the third chapter, the author describes Dara’s youth. He had commissioned an album on paintings and calligraphy. An incident is highlighted wherein Dara, Shuja and Aurangzeb try to fight two elephants. The author states that this incident marks the beginning of cracks in the relationship among Shah Jahan’s three eldest sons. This chapter further discusses Dara’s growing interest in Sufism and his encounters with Miyan Mir in Kashmir. Dara began writing Sufi literature. The next chapter discusses Dara’s discipleship with different Sufi saints. He also learns the fundamentals of imperial rule. It further looks at how a 17-year-old Aurangzeb was sent to his first campaign in Qandhar which ended in failure, and thereafter was ordered to handle the siege in Deccan. The other theme includes several literary expeditions of Dara and his sister, Jahanara and their spiritual connect with Mulla Shah. Dara’s rising interest in learning of Indic thoughts directly sourced from Hindu scriptures form the basis of the fifth chapter. His dialogues and discussions with Kavindracharya give readers an idea of his spiritual evolution.
The sixth chapter discusses how Shah Jahan sent Dara to handle the military campaign at Qandhar. It is for the first time when Dara’s knack of handling a military expedition is witnessed. Even though Dara fails to capture the fortress of Qandhar, he is received well by his father. This chapter further discusses Dara’s spiritual pursuits wherein he invites the wrath of Islamic clerics for exploring new spiritual realms, in particular, his meeting and dialogues with Hindu ascetic Baba Lal in Dhyanpur.
Chapter seven starts with the establishment of the new city of Delhi – Shahjahanabad, presently known as Old Delhi. Dara was closely involved with his father and understood the inner workings of kingship. By this time, it was clear that he would succeed Shah Jahan. This period from 1654-56 also marked a new phase in Dara’s life as his mansion in Delhi became a centre for spiritual dialogue and learning. This also marks his extensive study on Indic schools of thoughts and their scriptures, a time when he finished writing his book titled, Majma-ul-Bahrain. This work was said to be a result of his understanding of Indic studies.
The eighth chapter highlights Dara’s pursuit of learning and sponsoring translation of Yogavashistha scripture and his exploration of the Upanishads, which are later translated in Persian. Chapter nine discusses the events leading to one of the most talked about wars of succession among Shah Jahan’s sons – the Battle of Samugarh. Aurangzeb, who had with time developed resentment towards Dara sees this as a perfect occasion to level up. Aurangzeb defeats his brothers, Murad and Shuja and eventually crowns himself as the emperor. Dara, forced to flee amidst the war, tries to gather support and manage his family. He eventually reaches the dominions of Iran where he seeks refuge in the territory of the landowner Malik Jivan who subsequently betrays him. Dara is adjudged guilty for heresy and executed.
The author concludes her book by presenting a premise on the nature of reforms that would have happened had Dara ascended the Mughal throne. She shows how Dara’s writings gained popularity after his death, especially during the colonial era. In the end, the author infers that despite Dara not becoming the emperor, he was already a ruler in his father’s court since both Shah Jahan and Dara governed the kingdom together. In doing so, she justifies the title of her book, ‘The Emperor Who Never Was’.
History is a window to peep into human behaviour. This book provides lessons on fostering good alliances and showing a keen intuition when judging human character. The importance of healthy communication is a key takeaway as seen in the case of Aurangzeb who never communicated his contempt to Dara, which further increased bitterness between the two. Dara Shukoh grew as a spiritual person and administrator but failed to keep a check on his potential threats that led to his downfall. The narrative is simple and easy to understand. The author has also highlighted the contradictions and inconsistencies between the primary and secondary resources, stating that the truth lies somewhere in between. The book is an example of excellent storytelling of the history and keeps the readers hooked.