‘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.



Schumpeter, the Luddites, and the Post-COVID Workforce

By Avik Chanda

This is not a commercial.

But if you happen to find yourself in Abu Dhabi at this moment, and are planning to take a flight back home to Delhi, you might be advised to try Etihad Airways, especially in these pandemic times. To check in via their ‘Fit to Fly’ application, just stand in front of the monitor, remove your mask, and the system will scan your health particulars within seconds. The application will then quiz you on your activities over the past fortnight, to each of which you reply with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. An algorithm at the back-end analyses the information, issues an all-clear, prints out your boarding pass, and you drop your bags off at the counter. You’ve not met a single person among the airlines staff, let alone be within contamination distance. From the moment you entered the airport, your experience thus far has been as risk-free as possible. The application has replaced check-in executives, most of whom may never be coming back – but it’s a relatively small price to pay, for saving lives.

And as your journey becomes a montage, from the white-heat glare of an Arabian sun outside the window, through a somewhat claustrophobic, masked-on slumber, to the thick drapes of nimbus covering the sky at your destination, imagine that the same risk-free application that checked you in, has been implemented in all airports and airlines across India. This thought-experiment has just added to the toll of the estimated 2.9 million jobs already affected in the immediate term, across Indian aviation and allied sectors, as a direct result of the ongoing pandemic.

While it’s hoped that a significant number are expected to regain employment, in the wake of a vaccine, herd immunity and economic recovery, those employees that are displaced by superior, robust, cost-effective technology, will have no cause to be recalled to their counters. And once you reach home and begin to adjust into your self-quarantine regime, consider that if you’re working in real estate, retail, hospitality, travel, tourism or for that matter, even information technology, the odds are in one in six you may not have a job to go back to.

The effect of innovation and improvement in industrial processes on employment and jobs is both well-researched and documented. Conceived in the intellectual shadow of Marxian constructs, the Austrian-born economist, Joseph Schumpeter, writing in 1942, introduced and developed the concept of ‘the gale of creative destruction’, in his book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. According to him, creative destruction was an integral part of the way that capitalism functioned in the modern world. A fait accompli, it was “the process of industrial mutation that continuously revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”. Over the subsequent decades, theoretical models of growth, as well as empirical studies evidence and models have very largely converged to the conclusion that the process of creative destruction is an inevitable concomitant of economic growth and fluctuations.

In his book, Schumpeter argued that the unending cycle of creative-destructive forces in a capitalist system would eventually lead to its demise. History, to date, has however not borne out his prognosis, and in fact his term, creative destruction, has been enthusiastically adopted by generations of business gurus and industry magnates, to justify downsizing in the workplace, in favour of efficiency and innovation.

As a concept, its intellectual successor, ‘disruption’, has carried the argument to its logical and inalienable conclusion. The march of ground-breaking, innovation cannot be arrested. The giddy rate of technological advancement witnessed in a remarkably short span seems to support this view, hurtling an essentially analogous world into one where machines, algorithms and automated processes vie with, and increasingly, surpass their human counterparts at a range of tasks. The ramifications on employment are massive for labour-intensive economies such as India, where an estimated 30 to 40% of the current workforce cannot be readily re-skilled.

Alarm bells about the effects of automation started to ring early in 2017, when a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, was made public. The report indicated that 600,000 people working in Information Technology (IT) services firms across the country might lose their jobs over the coming three years. This amounted to 200,000 jobs lost on average, per year – to automation. McKinsey urged IT service providers to explore new models of man-and-machine working in conjunction, and re-skilling employees with emerging technologies. Corroborating this view, a report by US-based research firm HFS Research, stated that around 700,000 ‘low skilled’ professionals in IT and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industries in India could lose their jobs to automation and artificial intelligence, by 2022. For those reading between the lines, it’s apparent that while the initial brunt of automation would be borne by IT and BPO, sooner or later, other sectors would also be affected. As with most things in economics, there’s a tradeoff – the benefits in costs and efficiency of jobless growth, powered by technology that replaces labour, versus the social and moral responsibility of mass-scale retrenchment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all projections out with dishwater, and disrupted the prevalent ecosystem irrevocably, in two significant ways. First, faced with the outlook of forced social distancing sustained over an indefinite period of time, industries would scramble to replace current methods of running the business with means that are capital and technology intensive, at the exclusion of labour. Second, and even more telling, the whole moral argument of retrenchment has been turned on its head. Employers are safer when not in contagious distance within each other, even if it means there are significantly fewer of them left on the rolls. And customers would understandably like to shop in an environment where the prospect of any tactile interaction with salespersons is minimal to zero. The same organisations that would have held back on cutting jobs for its debilitating effect on lives may now be compelled to introduce technologically advanced processes of production, storage, distribution and sales, to reduce manpower across the board, from the workshops to warehouses and retail outlets.

The 2018 World Economic Forum report on the Future of Work indicates that two distinct streams of skills and attributes are coming into greater demand, as technological innovation, powered by artificial intelligence and automation, deepens across industries. First, there are those skills that involve a high degree of mathematical and technical ability, catering to the niche requirements of the AI industry. Such jobs will be limited in number, compared to programmers and testers in the previous scenario. Also, the ability of professionals to upskill themselves suitably to the required level will be limited. At the same time, there’s a growing need for a range of skills along the human dimension, including creativity, imagination, innovation, design thinking, and increasingly – empathy. Expertise in these attributes greatly increases the chances of sustained work for individuals, even in a largely automated workplace.

The ongoing pandemic has only increased the urgency of reskilling the existing workforce along the emergent technologies and also more evolved behavioural attributes and competencies. At some point in the future, the world may well gravitate to a new equilibrium where goods and services are more readily available and general living standards are higher than before. But the road will be rocky and painful. In the meantime, the sweep of the resultant unemployment will be as endemic as the virus that has caused it, from migrant wage labourers who represent the poorest section of society, to college-educated, middle-class professionals aspiring to become corporate managers and startup entrepreneurs. When savings run dry and children can’t be fed, the collective bewilderment of the dispossessed often turns to rancour.

From the earliest days when it began centred around the textile mills in Nottingham, the Luddite movement has come to epitomise all form of concerted protest against technological advancements and machinery that threaten to rob workers of their livelihoods. The movement came into being as a series of protests by traditional textile weavers, who feared, not without cause, that the newly introduced machines in the mills would replace them. The protests swiftly degenerated into arson and destruction of property, as groups of armed men stormed factories and destroyed the looms and machinery at hand. The Luddite rebellion ended in 1816, but the legacy of their revolt has sustained as a symbol of opposition to hyper-industrialisation and automation, that leave masses of people unemployed. If the dispossessed of the present times turn into Luddites, how are their protests likely to be met?

The answer, entailing the exact same method deployed to quell the original revolt, is to be found in Eric Hobsbawm’s 1952 essay, The Machine Breakers. By means of the state. At the height of the Luddite movement, 12,000 soldiers of the British Army were deployed against the so-called ‘machine-breakers’, a considerably greater number than what the intrepid Duke of Wellington had managed to muster in 1808, to give battle to Napoleon’s forces in the Iberian Peninsula. Fast forward to the grunting shuffle and press of 1st November 2019, when 80,000 police officers in France were deployed under “Act 9”, to counter the swell of the nation-wide Giles Jaunes protesters. And now, finally, imagine for a moment that all the 21st century Luddites across the world, displaced by the vagaries of the pandemic, and the automated, smarter-than-thou technologies that have emerged as a response to it, have come out onto the streets, in protest.

What will it take this time?


Avik Chanda is a bestselling author, columnist, business advisor, entrepreneur and educator. His book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption (HarperCollins, 2017), was selected for Amazon India’s Best Reads, under the category, ‘Business, Strategy and Management’ . His latest book, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King(HarperCollins, 2019), garnered rave reviews from academics, authors, the national press, and general readers. It was in the Top 10 Non-Fiction Bestsellers List, for 10 consecutive weeks, post its publication, and has recently been released as an audiobook, by Audible.




Dara Shukoh: Where would we be if he were King

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra of a historical narrative that continued in the Top 10 Bestsellers List for 10 Consecutive weeks, on publication. Recently, Audible has released an audiobook version of this book.

Title: Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King

Author: Avik Chanda

Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019

Scanning the list of books already written on Dara Shukoh, I wondered why the author had chosen to write yet another book about Dara Shukoh, but that was before I came across Avik Chanda’s impressive work. A magnificent tome, it is richly palimpsestic and multi-layered and articulates the many complex layers of its protagonist’s personality and the forces that he had to grapple with. The book also displays an impressive array of materials and archives that were sourced by the author in putting together this fascinating chronicle.

In adding to a genre of what is known as popular history, the author has left no stone unturned. In doing so, he neither puts Dara on a pedestal, nor does he vilify him. Instead, he shows his protagonist’s limitations in his military campaigns, his aloofness and withdrawal from much of court politics, his intellectual leanings and his impatience with the petty nitty gritty of everyday politics on the ground, which often came across as arrogance to the people surrounding him.     

Avik Chanda’s prodigious research helps him write what seems like the definitive version on the tragic prince.. About Dara Shukoh, he writes:

The emperor’s Shah Jahan’s favourite son, heir-apparent to the Mughal throne prior to his defeat by Aurangzeb, Dara has sometimes been portrayed as an effete prince, utterly incompetent in all military and administrative matters. But his tolerance towards other faiths, the legacy of his philosophy and the myriad myths surrounding him, have far outlived him and continue to fuel the popular imagination. In truth, the Crown Prince was a highly complex person: a visionary thinker, a talented poet and prolific writer, a scholar and theologian of unusual merit, a calligraphist and connoisseur of the fine arts, and a dutiful son and warm –hearted family man.

He also goes on to add:

…he was also cold and arrogant to the mass of courtiers and commanders, whom he felt were inferior to him, intensely superstitious by nature, easily swayed by mystery and magic, an indifferent army general and shockingly naïve in his judgement of character.

Chanda thus sets the record straight; there are no heroes and villains in his version. Instead, we are presented with a complex, multi-faceted scholarly man whose aesthetic taste and judgement were impeccable and one who could participate in scholarly debate and disputation with the best scholars  of his time. A man of eclectic tastes, entrenched in his faith, deeply spiritual and almost other-worldly, Dara Shukoh did not like the strict asceticism of the mendicants. Instead, he believed in a faith full of love and compassion, and experienced nothing but supreme disdain at the Machiavellian machinations of the nobles and courtiers surrounding the king. Interested in mysticism, he was also open in his pursuit of religious knowledge, heterodox rather than orthodox.

Biographies can be of many types, hagiographical, celebratory, laudatory and critical. The best biographies are the ones which show not only fidelity to fact, but also stop short of creating two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of its protagonists as heroes. Instead, the author undertakes a prodigious amount of research  and steers clear of the epistemic trap of producing historical stereotypes. Rather than depicting heroes and villains, who are judged based on present standards of morality, we have historically dense, nuanced characters whose impulses and motives are subjected to psychological scrutiny. Thus Dara writes of his encounter with Mullah Shah, an experience so profoundly moving that he felt it had to be recorded:

The doors of divine bounty and mercy were opened upon my heart and he(Mullah Shah) gave me whatever I asked.   Now even though I belong to the people of the world…..I am not one of them, for  I have known their ignorance and affliction. Even though I am far from a dervish, spiritually I belong with them.

Dara Shukoh goes on to add:

In the discipline of the school to which I belong, there is  contrary to the practices laid down in other schools, no pain or difficulty. There is no asceticism in it, everything is easy, gracious and a free gift. Everything here is love and affection, pleasure and ease.

Dara is an avid notetaker, and wonders, whether like his grandfather, Jahangir, he too, should keep a detailed journal. We remember also the richly woven narrative and sensuous details of the Baburnama (written originally in Persian by Abdul Rahim, 1589-90, and translated later from the nineteenth century onwards), which has come in for a fair amount of appreciation and critical work.

 It is in these moments that we see the panoramic sweep of monumentalist history and historiography interspersed with jewels like these, little vignettes which record the still, small voice of history. This massing of small but telling details, like  Dara’s relationship with his wife, and his sister, Jahanara  Begum, shows a man to whom humanity is of paramount value, a man who seemed to have an understanding of the bedrock of our common humanity. While Dara’s understanding of the nuances of his  faith, especially Sufism, is truly remarkable, with its notions of tawhid and dhikr/zikr, fana (love and devotion), ideas that are similar to many ideas within the contours of Bhakti devotion. We are in danger of losing sight of this substratum of a common devotional and cultural imagination in the present climate of intolerance that seems to sweep across the world.

Even as he extols Dara Shukoh’s understandings of these nuances, Avik Chanda also mentions, in almost the same breath, that his immersion in the biography of Sufi saints, Nafahat-al-Uns, results in his neglect of state affairs and administration of the empire. His ignoring the call of duty is overlooked by his doting father but noticed by the courtiers.

Historical agency and history’s inevitability are both in evidence here. Further, it is noteworthy to see the intelligence and capabilities of Dara’s sister, Jahanara Begum. Apart from remarkable women like Mehr-Un-Nisa or Nur Jahan, there were many notable women in the Mughal court. It is interesting to speculate if there could be a ‘her story’ (or her stories) that we could wrest from the margins of  this historical and biographical discourses. There are more stories here, not only the tragedy of Dara but of his handsome, noble , dignified son, Suleman Shukoh, which leaves a lasting impression on Zebunissa, Auranzib/ Alam’s daughter who had been betrothed to her cousin and then turns rebellious, penning verses that reek of apostasy, as if to avenge his execution. Aurangzeb may have won the throne, but that victory certainly comes at a cost.

The book ends on a note where there are no absolute winners or losers. As Aurangzib/Alamgir realises, with hardly and inheritors who are both competent and trustworthy, his earthly achievements fade before Dara Shukoh’s reputation, which seems to grow in posterity/ posthumously. In a sense, all historical events are but wrinkles in time, as viewed from the perspective of eternity.               

Reading through Avik Chanda’s account, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and think about the purpose and function of history, both in narrativising as well as studying it. History is not just a compendium of facts about the past, but a revisiting of the past in the light of the present. Further, there is no one overarching historical truth, but a series of facts which are woven into narratives with different and varying interpretative twists, from varying ideological perspectives and vantage points.

To that extent, the history and biography of a man who stood for a confluence of Indo-Islamic tradition and culture, went beyond its doctrinaire aspect, and embraced mystical traditions which embodied the richest motifs of Sufism, so remarkably similar to that of the  Bhakti movement calls for varied interpretations. It is interesting — and at times tempting — to speculate, in a counterfactual way, whether history would have been any different if Dara Shukoh, and not his brother, Aurangzeb, had ascended the Mughal throne. Perhaps not, since history is the great leveller, devouring good and bad alike as it races and hurtles through time and space.  


Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.