The book I chose for my ‘Face a Book’ challenge is The ‘Serpent’s Tooth’, 5th book in the series of ‘Empire of The Moghul’ written by Alex Rutherford – which is actually the pen name of Diana Preston and Michael, a history-couple greatly interested in the Mughal Empire. This book traces the reign of the 5th Mughal King Shah Jahan – the man behind the Taj Mahal- to the usurping of the throne by his tyrant son, Aurangzeb. The story began as a continuation of the 4th book in the series, ’The Tainted Throne’, where Shah Jahan assumes the throne of the mighty Mughal Empire from his father, Jahangir, after a deadly battle which saw Prince Khurram killing his own half-brothers for the coveted throne. The book, thus, begins with an assassination bid on Shah Jahan by one of his nephews. Shah Jahan escapes in time only with a faint scratch but the poor soul is executed mercilessly. The book then takes us to the peninsular battlefields where Shah Jahan, along with his family, camped to supress the Deccan uprisings.
The story takes an expected twist when Mumtaz, Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, dies in childbirth. The emperor is completely shaken and even refuses to see his new born daughter, Roshanara. Heartbroken, Shah Jahan leaves the Deccan menace to one of his Generals and leaves for Agra, his capital, to build a magnificent mausoleum for his beloved. The intervening chapters reflects the mental agony, describes how he was devastated and jolted by the sudden change of fate and establishes that he was not able to come into terms with his loss. Shah Jahan veils himself in a deep state of mourning, unknowingly distancing from his children.
After the demise of Mumtaz, who has been the support the family, the relationships among the siblings wary and the brothers, especially Aurangzeb, starts suspecting the other two, Dara Shukoh and the younger Murad. The rifts between the brothers are further worsened when Shah Jahan sends Aurangzeb and Murad to Bengal and Deccan to govern, while keeping the elder Dara with him in Agra. Shah Jahan, meanwhile, sees a potential successor in his elder son Dara, who according to Aurangzeb is unworthy of continuing the legacy of the great ancestors. To supress the rebellions the north-western part of the empire Shah Jahan decides to sends the younger Murad and later Aurangzeb, this angers the two and flares-up their suspicion of Dara becoming the emperor. In the meanwhile something that shouldn’t have happened, strains the relationship between Shah Jahan and his eldest daughter Jahanara. Finally, after 22 years of hard labour, Mumtaz is build a resting place in the bank of Yamuna, the ‘Taj Mahal’.
Jahanara, meanwhile, enter into secret agreement with a Frenchman Nicholas Ballantyne for getting information of her brothers (Aurangzeb and Murad) plans. She feels she could ameliorate the strained relations. But Shah Jahan, on hearing the news of Jahanara having secret contact with the foreigner, locks her up in the royal harem and sends order to kill the Frenchman. Thus every attempt to restore the family ties ends up in failure.
Shah Jahan, tormented by the realisation that he caused the death of his beloved and all these problems, now falls seriously ill. His inability to appear for the daily ‘Jharoka-Dharshan’, a practice his grandfather had started a century ago, rouses suspicion among the country men. The news immediately reaches the far corners of the empire and Aurangzeb starts militarisation to lay siege to the Agra fort for he believe that Dara Shukoh had taken the matters into his own hands. Murad joins Aurangzeb. Heartbroken by the development of events Shah Jahan announces Dara as his successor.
This blows into an all out war between the brothers. Dara leads a large army but many of his comrades defect to the other side. Dara, who has been siting on the top of the howdah on an elephant, is knocked down by an arrow. Without a commander to be seen on the howdah, the army starts retreating from the battlefield. The injured Dara is brought back atop a horse.
Unable to see his sons killing each other Shah Jahan orders Dara to move to Delhi. Shah Jahan gives a letter for the Governor of Delhi ordering him to provide all the facilities for Dara to raise an army. Following his father orders Dara along with a platoon of soldiers march towards the city of Delhi. Meanwhile, the treacherous Aurangzeb allures his younger brother Murad to his comforts and kills him.
But on reaching Delhi, all hell broke loose, the Governor hesitates to acknowledge the royal order and gives a deaf ear to Dara’s pleas. Tired and devastated and unable to cone out with any other plans, Dara allows his soldiers to escape from this evil chase for he is sure of Aurangzeb following him close by. Ultimately Aurangzeb finds Dara and, in a shocking public display of his valour, beheads his brother in the Lal Quila (Red Fort). He then proceeds to Agra with great enthusiasm.
Once in Agra, Aurangzeb puts his father in house arrest. He locks him up in a room with a view of the Taj. He forcibly tries to takeaway the royal ring of authority from father which Shah Jahan powders into dust out of anger. The new king arranges for his coronation ceremony to be held the banks of River Yamuna so that his ailing father can see it from the balcony. The only person with whom Shah Jahan is allowed to meet his Jahanara. In the last days, he lives a austere life with Jahanara reading to him stories of his youthful days.
Reviewed by A. Manjith Nair