Zahir ud-din Muhammad Babur was the last Timurid and the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. He was a tactician, poet, zoologist, melon enthusiast, Muslim, and badass. He was also the author of the Baburnama, an autobiography unprecedented in its milieu.
In setting out to write about the Baburnama, I learned that most of the good quotations have already been used, either by E.M. Forster, who was facetious but enthusiastic about the book in “The Emperor Babur,” or Amitav Ghosh, who wrote a very elegant essay about Babur for The Little Magazine. Babur, it turns out, is highly quotable and widely admired by discerning minds. So, like a painter in the Timurid style, I must contrive to cunningly rearrange themes that were established long before I picked up the brush.
As milieux go, Babur’s was a doozy. Timurid Central Asia was fractured between various Turco-Mongol courts and hemmed in by Safavids and Aqquyunlu Turkmen. Political legitimacy was an appanage nightmare, wherein your family was the calling card of your right to rule, but also the most likely to kill you and take over your territory. (Quoth Babur to one of his sons: “I consider Kabul my lucky piece and have made it royal demesne. Let none of you covet it.”)
Forster famously complained, “Those awful Oriental names! They welter from start to finish. Sometimes twenty new ones occur on a page and never recur.”
This is a bit rich from a person whose hereditary monarchy is populated mostly with people named George, Henry, and Elizabeth, and whose nobles are named after ancestral knolls and ranked by the placement of a comma. That said, the names in the Baburnama are rough going. There are a number of Mirzas, Begs, Khans, and Sultans to sort out, and it’s basically guaranteed that you are not going to sort them.
I find, though, that sorting them is not very important. The facts are these, as Babur presents them: “In the month of Ramadan in the year 899 , in the province of Fergana, in my twelfth year I became king.”
Babur is a Turco-Mongol of the first order; he’s descended from Chengiz Khan on one side, Timur on the other, and he’s got problems. Like most kings, Babur is anxious for a kingdom, but he’s left out of family councils, hounded by Uzbeks, and betrayed this way and that. Turning to his Mongol cousins and uncles, he finds them unpalatable to his classy Persianized tastes, and unreliable generally (that’s kind of the thing about Mongols):
The Moghul troops who had come as reinforcements had no endurance for battle. They left the battle and began to unhorse and plunder our own men. It was not just here they did this: those wretched Moghuls always do this. If they win they take booty; if they lose they unhorse their own people and plunder them for for booty.
After capturing and failing to keep Samarkand and other cities in modern-day Uzbekistan, Babur makes for Afghanistan, then India.
Personal and political legitimacy were complicated among the Timurids, wherein Islam, customary law, and permutations of the Mongols’ code of justice were all in play. Babur is a pious fellow, but a hard partier. Wednesday features a drinking party at Tangriberdi’s place, while the following Thursday the gang gets a course in jurisprudence from Mullah Mahmoud. After a politically-motivated turn to Shi’ism (not mentioned in the Baburnama, by accident or design), Babur returns to the Sunni fold, ratchets his orthodoxy up several notches, and renounces wine.
Poetic skill was as favorable a characteristic as piety in Babur’s circle, and the man had chops as a poet and a critic. Of the poet Hilali’s new work, he writes: “Although some lines are wonderful, the content is hollow and the premise terrible.” Not one for snobbery, he reports of another man: “Although he was illiterate, his humor indicated that he had a poetic nature.”
We would have wanted him for The Millions, I think.
Babur’s Mughal dynasty would eventually produce the Taj Mahal and other jewels in the crown of Indian monuments, but Babur was unmoved by his new territory. His complaints about Hindustan eerily anticipate his British colonial successors, and were, according to Forster, heavily quoted by Anglo-Indians down the line:
Hindustan is a place of little charm… There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.
You almost expect hear him call the boy for another gin.
Melons are a thing with Babur. Hot, grumpy, and newly sober in Hindustan, he remembers the melons of Kabul:
How can one forget the pleasures of that country? Especially when abstaining from drinking, how can one allow oneself to forget a licit pleasure like melons and grapes? Recently a melon was brought, and as I cut it and at it I was oddly affected. I wept the whole time I was eating it.
Melons, grapes, partridges–all of these fall under the purview of the Baburnama. It’s not just as a sensualist that Babur writes, although his fruit-lust verges on the scandalous; he was a bonafide observer of living things. The Baburnama is full of curious but engaging digressions on alligators, muskrats, bats with puppy faces, varieties of mango, and so on. In fact, they are not even digressions, so integral do they seem to Babur’s way of comprehending the world.
The Baburnama isn’t all poetry and partridges. Babur was in India for conquest, and as such he killed people and took their things. “Possessions plenty, the people infidels, the road short. If the east is far away, this is near,” he writes.
I’d say it was just the mode of his medieval times, but that’s unjust to Babur, and to medieval times–show me a leader today who isn’t sanctioning some kind of horror. Fortunately for us, the Baburnama’s prose (from the Chagatai to the Persian to the English of Wheeler Thackston), is better than that of say, Decision Points, and Babur’s horrors are safely in the distant past, where they are less upsetting to the doves among his readers.
Polymaths abounded among Babur’s contemporaries, but the Baburnama is formally something special–a personal work unique among the customary histories and treatises of medieval Islamicate societies. Babur admonishes his son Humayun about his correspondence: “…you try to make it too fancy. From now on write with uncomplicated, clear, and plain words.” One of my favorite things about the Baburnama is Babur’s plain talk, especially leveled at the notables of the time. He was not interested in reconciling personality traits (“The paragraph is a series of shocks,” says Forster of one character study).
Of one man, Babur writes: “For me he performed well at the Samarkand gate. He was a valiant man. He wrote the nasta’liq script beautifully. He was a sycophant, and parsimony prevailed in his nature.”
Of another: “His management and equipment were excellent, and he maintained his retainers well. He did not perform his prayers or fast. He was tyrannical and heathenish.”
I am moved by Babur. He wrote in his home tongue rather than the lofty Persian of his court and poetry. His memoirs are full of plain speech, good sense, and humor. And yet they illuminate a world full of varied and vibrant experience–the cowardice of an enemy, the fatness of a partridge, the vision of a saint, the beauty of a field while high on ma’jun.
Early in his travels Babur, referencing a king from the Shahnama, carves on a rock: “Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye./ We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.”
Babur did not take the world with him to the grave, but he left himself in the world. Truly it is a rare thing for a voice to call across 500 years and greet you like a friend.
New this week: Paul Auster’s latest, Sunset Park; a new collection of short stories from Stephen King called Full Dark, No Stars; The Memory Hole, a memoir by the historian Tony Judt who recently died from ALS (the essays collected here appeared in recent months in the New York Review of Books); and the latest obligatory obfuscatory presidential memoir Decision Points.
The Decider will be offering his version of the Presidential memoir with Decision Points (sounds like a thriller, no?) due on November 9. (One week after mid-term elections)