Babur's prowess as a General is well known. His felicity with words, however, is a refreshing discovery.
He was also an outstanding man of letters, equally at home with prose and poetry in both Turkish, his mother tongue, and Persian.
THE pen is mightier than the sword". The saying has been with us for ages, and remains by and large unchallenged in most civilised societies. It is based on the either/ or premise. It assumes that the person who is adept at wielding a sword is hopeless when it comes to handling words.
But, as always, there are exceptions. History provides us with personalities who were equally at ease with words and lethal weapons. Such is the case with Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur.
Wide variety of subjects
Like those familiar with Indian history, I was aware of Babur as an outstanding general and the founder of the Mughal dynasty. But it was only when I read his monumental journal, the Babur Nama, that I realised that he was also an outstanding man of letters, equally at home with prose and poetry — in both Turkish, his mother tongue, and Persian.
Babur deploys his writing skill to a wide variety of subjects — astronomy, battles, biographies and family chronicles, flora and fauna, geography, hand-to-hand fights, historical monuments, literary criticism, pen portraits, poetry, royal decrees, and social gatherings. Each time his performance is impeccable because he activates different aspects of his complex personality. Quite uniquely, he was endowed with boundless curiosity, an acute eye for detail, self-knowledge, logical thinking, and candour that is both disarming and moving.
Equally varied is his style, which ranges from the Pinteresque to the Bollywood script. Little wonder that some parts of his memoirs read like a novel, others a history, and still others an action-packed drama.
In every instance, he performs flawlessly. Almost invariably, he is economical with words. His sinewy and lucid prose is on a par with the best writing of Ernest Hemingway or Scott F. Fitzgerald. He writes simply and logically, and every so often he peppers his prose with a telling idiom redolent of the agrarian society in which he was born and raised. "Banana is another [Indian fruit]," he writes in the Babur Nama. "Its tree is not very tall. Indeed it is not tall enough to be called a tree. Its leaf is a little like that of the aman qara, (peace under shade), but grows about two yards long and one yard broad. Out of the middle of its leaves rises, heart-like, a bud which resembles a sheep's heart."
The logic with which he proceeds in the above paragraph is very much at work in his description of the Domain of Fergana, now in Uzbekistan, where he started his career as a ruler. "The Domain of Fergana has seven towns, five on the south and two on the north of Syr River," he notes. "Of those on the south, one is Andijan. It has a central position and is the capital of the Fergana Domain. It produces much grain, abundant fruits and melons."
Now compare that sort of prose with the wording of the royal decree Emperor Babur issued late in his life renouncing wine. Following a quotation from the Quran, it reads, "On the mirrors of the glorious congregation, to wit, the Masters of Wisdom who are treasure houses of the pearls of purity and who bear the impress of the sparkling jewels of this purport."
Babur is equally at ease with the descriptions of his personal experiences, which are remarkable as much for their lack of exaggeration or self-aggrandisement as they are for their vividness and precision. "A man took aim at Ibrahim Beg," Babur writes. "But then Ibrahim Beg yelled, `Hai! Hai!'; and he let him pass, and by mistake shot me in an armpit from as near as a man on guard at the Gate stands from another. Two plates of my armour cracked. I shot at a man running away along the ramparts, adjusting his cap against the battlements. He abandoned his cap, nailed to the wall and went off, gathering his turban sash together in his hand."
Expression of love
No feeling can be more intimate or moving than being in love. "Until then I had no inclination of love and desire for anyone, by hearsay or experience," Babur wrote when he was 17. "At that time I composed Persian couplets, one or two at a time. This is one of them:
May none be as I, humbled and wretched and lovelorn;/Not beloved as you are to me, you cruel being, full of scorn.
In that maelstrom of desire and passion, and under the stress of youthful folly, I used to wander, bareheaded and barefoot, through streets and lanes, orchards and vineyards... Sometimes, like mad men I used to wander alone over hill and plain; sometimes I wandered in gardens and suburbs, lane after lane. My roaming was not of my choice; nor could I decide whether to go or stay.
Nor power to stay was mine, nor strength to part;/I became what you made of me, oh thief of my heart."
Anybody who has been in love would identify with the prose and poetry of Babur. That in short is the greatness of Babur, an accomplished wielder of both pen and sword.