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Interview

‘Syncretism has always been a fundamental part of our DNA’

An online conversation with Avik Chanda, the best-selling author of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King

While we grapple in the throes of not just the pandemic but worldwide disruptions of democratic traditions, protests gone awry and a questioning of divisions that deepen rifts among humans, perhaps it is time to explore more syncretic lore in history and to learn from it. Other than Gandhi, who was killed in 1948, who can we turn to historically?  Perhaps, the rulers who preceded the British — the Mughals. Among the Mughals, a name that was revived last year was Dara Shukoh, the elder brother of Shah Jahan. Here, we have an exclusive interview with the author who wrote a whole book on him, Avik Chanda.

On November 2019, a little before non-syncretic riots ripped through Delhi in the wake of Trump’s visit, we had a book that made a mark and touched our hearts with its heartfelt rendition of dry history. Some of the descriptions in this book could give poets a run for their money. I am talking of Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Other than authoring the best-selling book, Chanda is a Forbes 2020 Great People Manager Nominee, business advisor, visiting faculty at XLRI, columnist for various publications, including HBR Ascend, Economic Times, People Matters, and the Founder-CEO of NUVAH ELINT LLP. He makes some very pertinent observations in this interview and we are grateful for the time he has given us.

Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King continued on the bestseller list for over a year and you were in an out of talks. Tell us a bit about the book. How it came about? Why did you opt to write on Dara and not someone else?

In December 2017, my business book, From Command To Empathy was published by HarperCollins. The book received some good press, and equally encouraging feedback from the readers. So, for me, one immediate option (you could call it – temptation) was to write another book in the same vein. Instead, I wanted to take myself beyond my usual comfort zone. Mughal history, which had always fascinated me, emerged as the genre of choice. I had always wanted to do a biography (or several!), and looking through the literature, I found that a number of prominent books had been published on the Mughal royals, from Babur to Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, right down to the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. But even though the legend of Dara Shukoh still lived on in our times, the last full-length monograph on him was published in the 1950s. And I thought – perhaps the time has come for Dara Shukoh to regain his place in the sun.

Tell us about the research you did on the book.

The research involved three different categories of sources – first, translations of contemporary chronicles and treatises, the contemporary European accounts, which presented very interesting, often idiosyncratic, perspectives, of the same events recounted by the official chroniclers, and finally, the wealth of research and scholarship that has come about in the last century, from the time that Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s monumental volumes on Aurangzeb were published.

How has been the reception of the book among readers?

Post the publication of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, it remained in the top 10 non-fiction bestsellers’ list for a long time, was covered by all the major publications nationally, featured at prestigious literary festivals, and also released as an audiobook, by Audible. But the best part, to me, has been the feedback from readers. So many strangers, whom I wouldn’t have known, but for this book, reached out to me, saying how much they liked it. Amongst the best compliments that I have received are that the book “brings history alive”, and also that “it has the power to transport the reader to a bygone time, because it reads as if it has been written by an eye-witness”.

True. I also found your descriptions vivid and the research exhaustive. I loved the lore you discussed – the syncretism that you highlighted. Around this time, there had been a lot of books which highlighted this aspect of syncretic living. Do you think there is a reason for it?

I feel syncretism has always been a fundamental part of our civilisational DNA, therefore it’s not surprising to see it assert itself through creative output. But perhaps, especially during these times, the recent surge of writing is a reaction to the deep sense of divisiveness that we find across the rubric of society.

Do you think writing about syncretic lore can heal lacerations made over centuries? What kind of an impact has your book made?

I wish I could answer this one with a resounding ‘yes’. Books and films certainly play a part in shaping the collective consciousness, but their power is bolstered when buoyed by the mass and social media. If the media is embroiled in partisan feuds, and there’s a surfeit of information, and not a small share of misinformation, people would naturally get distracted from the main issues. My book came out around the time when, uncannily, there was a resurgence of interest on Dara Shukoh in Government circles. In that context, I hope that my book has made a small contribution, not only to the ongoing discourse, and to point out that the best way we can celebrate the life and legacy of Dara Shukoh is by living his ideals, not merely by holding academic symposiums, identifying the exact spot of his mortal remains, or creating statues and monuments in his honour.

That is a very pertinent observation. Dara had some good points as did Gandhi and living by their ideals is the best way to celebrate their legacy. Around this time, there has been another book by Audrey Truschke on Aurangzeb. You have also portrayed Aurangzeb in a big way. Can you compare your perspective with hers for us?

Treatment-wise, the two books are very different. Truschke’s is a slim volume written by an academic, albeit without any accompanying footnotes – whereas mine is written in an almost novelistic style, while adhering to historical authenticity. As regards the age-old debate between Dara Shukoh and his nemesis, Aurangzeb, I have tried, very consciously, to be impartial. Truschke’s position on Dara comes out more through her published statements and interviews, than through the book — I’m not entirely sure that she has been impartial to Dara.

Dara’s story makes one think not just of syncretic lore but of war and peace. Given that Dara was not a soldier or strategist, would he really have been a good king for those times? Do you think he might have been an alternative to Aurangzeb?

One can’t really answer that without indulging in speculation. However, we can take the documented evidence as a point of reference. For instance, it’s known that Dara, along with his sister, interceded with his father, the emperor Shah Jahan, to abolish the pilgrimage tax imposed on Hindus. It seems unlikely, therefore, that had he ascended the throne, he would have reversed this policy, or brought about the reimposition of the Jiziya (a tax for being a non-Muslim). On the other hand, as you indicated in your question, Dara had no experience or interest in military matters, and was an impulsive, mediocre commander in the field of battle, although not cowardly. And in that period of history, one had to be an accomplished general, who could lead from the front, in order to be a successful ruler. It wasn’t enough to be a scholar, theologian, poet, philosopher, chronicler, a uniquely original thinker – such qualities could sometimes even be counter-productive.

The current situation in India seems to have taken a turn where syncretic lore opposes extreme right-wing politics. As you are a writer who has written of a time where choices were made between a syncretic ruler and an extremist ruler. Do you think we can draw a parallel?  Can you elaborate on it?

I don’t believe we can draw a parallel with our present times. Let’s start with the Dara figure. Can you think of a national level leader in contemporary India, who embodies Dara’s spirit?

Touché! That is a million dollar question. Well to return to the present, let us go back to the past. Earlier, people fought. Used weapons to win. Now people protest and try to make a point. Given this journey from a violent past, to perhaps a less violent present, do you actually think things can be sorted out by protests?

It depends on how we see violence. We may not be witnessing the insane, rampant bloodletting of a Timur or Atilla – but there’s an undercurrent of intolerant radicalism across the world, and not just in totalitarian regimes. Take the American example of today – and the deep schism across the society there. And alarmingly, the US is by no means alone, in this regard. Nor do we know protests to be always non-violent. From the gilets jaun to Black Lives Matter to Farmers’ Protest in India on its Republic Day, we have a range of instances, where protests that start with peaceful intent can get out of hand.

You have published books on management, fiction and history. Which has been the most interesting journey for you?

Each in its own way has been equally exciting. And I think the main reason for that each time, I was exploring not just a new genre, but a subject that I felt deeply about. With my debut novel, Anchor, I offered a fictionalized version of the violent land-grabbing incident at Singur, in West Bengal. My business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption, aimed to urge a greater level of human connect and emotional enablement, in an increasingly automated, gadget-based workplace. And now, of course, there’s Dara Shukoh.

You are an author, columnist and entrepreneur. How do you juggle the three roles?

Experience has taught me that the prospect of multi-tasking, while exhilarating, isn’t necessarily very productive. So, to the extent possible, I try to compartmentalize chunks of time, for specific projects. For instance, I try to keep bylines for the weekend. Of course, if there are deadlines, such a neat compartmentalization becomes untenable. And any form of entrepreneurship keeps you mentally on your toes, all the time. What I love most about this phase of my life, is that I am only working on projects that I am passionate about.

What are your present and future projects?

At present, I’ve begun another book project. It’s non-fiction, again, and history – but it’s not a biography, and I have an even broader canvas to work with, and I’m enjoying the process thoroughly.

Thank you for giving us your time.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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