As I checked my watch, it was quarter past three in the afternoon. “Have I arrived before time?”—I asked the Ahadi soldier standing next to me. He said I was lucky to be allowed entrance to the Diwan-i-Khas, before court time. He stared at my watch for a long time, and asked me what kind of zevar that was. He was rather surprised when I told him that it was a timepiece. I, being a man from the future, had become an object of curiosity in the medieval city of Delhi. Everyone seemed to be interested in meeting the desi babu in angrez clothes, a man who spoke fluent Hindustani and English, and who also carried a bunch of karamati goods with which he did magic. The other day, I was mobbed when I went to Paranthewali Gali at Chandni Chowk. Everyone wanted to touch me and talk to me. I was saved by His Majesty’s personal bodyguards, the Ahadis, when they took me away with them. Ever since then, Mirza Raja Jai Singh, the Emperor’s most trusted officer, has barred me from going out of the Red Fort alone. Actually, I haven’t seen much of the Mirza ever since I taught him to play ‘Solitaire’ card game on my laptop.
I patiently waited for the Emperor to come down for the interview. I was told by the Mir Bakshi (the paymaster of the Empire) that His Exalted Highness is offering the namaz-i-maghrib (the namaz of Maghrib) and would arrive shortly. I looked around the place. It was grander than I had imagined. The most decorative tapestries adorned the walls of the Hall of Private Audience (Diwan-i-Khas). The ceiling was done in gold, with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds giving it a lustrous look. On the right hand corner of the wall, was inscribed in Persian, Amir Khusraw’s famous couplet, “gar firdaus bar ru-i-zameen ast, hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast” (if there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, none but this). In the centre of the room, was placed the legendary Takht-i-Taus (Peacock Throne).
At this point, Mirza Raja Jai Singh entered. We had a brief chat. The Emperor wanted him to be present during the interview. We were alerted by the court crier, announcing the arrival of the Emperor. “Ba adab ba mulhaiza hoshiyaar! Sultan ibn-i-Sultan, Shahenshah-i-Hindustan, Chiragh-i-nasl-i-Timur, Huzoor Gulnoor, Fakhr-i-Baburi, Jalal-i-Akbari, Zill-i-Illahi, Hazrat Abul Muzaffar Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir Bahadur Badshah Ghazi, Darbar-i-Mughalia mein raunaq afroz ho rahe hain! (“Attention everyone: Sultan son of Sultan, Emperor of Hindustan, torchbearer of the dynasty of Timur, Lord of the land, Pride of Babur, Majesty of Akbar, Shadow of the God on Earth, Lord Abul Muzaffar Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir, the brave Emperor and slayer of infidels, by God’s grace, is making his exalted presence in the court”)
Everyone in the court bowed as His Majesty entered the court and ascended the throne. He looked at me and beckoned me to come in front of him. I trembled inside for a moment: I was standing in front of the most powerful man in the world in the seventeenth century. Although I come from a democratic society, yet being in his court, I was at the mercy of Lord Alamgir.“Huzoor ka iqbal bulund ho” (May the sun shine upon His Exalted Highness)—I did sijdah (bowing) before him. “Tashreef rakhiye”—he asked me to sit down.
“Sire, if you would permit me, I would like to record our conversation on tape. It is important.” He did not properly understand what I meant and gave me a confused look. I took out the I-pod and placed it between us. He stared at the object for a while. “In the name of Imam Zamin, please tell what this object is.” I told him that it is a recorder cum player and has many features. I turned it on and recorded His Majesty’s voice and played it back to him. “Subhan Allah! Subhan Allah! This is Allah’s magic!”—he cried out in utter amazement…so did everyone else present. The Emperor ordered Sharbat-i-Azam to be brought in. Sipping the delicious drink, I put my first question to His Majesty.
“Sire, my first question will be on your lifestyle. How do you think your lifestyle is different from your predecessors and contemporaries?”
“I don’t see any fundamental difference. Our circumstances influence our lifestyle. We Emperors are busy people. Right now, we are in the midst of troubled times. The Marathas under Shivaji are creating trouble in the Deccan, while the Ahoms and the Koches in the eastern frontier are becoming rebellious. I cannot have a pompous lifestyle when the Empire is in trouble. I think my contemporaries elsewhere are having a less troubled life. They are living a life of luxury, I must say.”
“Your Majesty, people say that you do not have a sense of fashion, that you lead an austere life. What do you have to say about that?”
“I think people are correct here! I am not a very fashionable man. I am a soldier and a faqir at the same time. I do not like heavy clothes, although I do wear ceremonial attires whenever the occasion arises. Otherwise, I prefer Muslin clothes. I specially get them from Dhaka.”
The Emperor seemed to be a simple man; but he did have a good taste. He is of average height and has a lighter frame, and I guess, would look good in any dress. He has bright, intelligent eyes, and looks at everyone intently: a fact that sends shivers down the spines of many a battle-hardened soldier. They say Alamgir is invincible in battle.
“Your Majesty, you have recently discontinued the practice of jharokha darshan, which your predecessors had started and followed zealously. Your critics are of the view that you have done this, as you think it is a Hindu practice and you hate Hindus. Your comments please.”
“I haven’t discontinued the jharokha darshan because of any religious reason. The reason is purely political. I had to fight a bloody war of succession with my brothers even when Ala Hazrat (Shah Jahan) was alive. He was unwell and could not come for jharokha darshan, a fact that created suspicion in the minds of our noble subjects that Badshah Salamat was dead. I would not want my children to follow the same path.”
“I see. But Sire, many of your rivals are of the view that you have a terrible hatred for Hindus and do not allow Hindu officers in your government to occupy important offices. Is this true?”
“I certainly do not agree with this view. An Emperor could be a Hindu or a Muslim in his private life; but when he ascends the throne, his riyaya (subjects) becomes his children. You should know that 33% of our officers are Hindus. None of my predecessors had so many non-Muslims in the bureaucracy.”
“Sire, you have recently imposed jaziya tax on your non-Muslim subjects. There is large-scale discontent in your empire because of this. Why are you trying to reverse the policies of your predecessors? Don’t you think this will destroy the fine fabric of the Mughal Empire?”
“I have imposed jaziya on my non-Muslim subjects on economic grounds. When I came to power, I found the treasury almost empty. Ala Hazrat had spent a lot of money in architectural works. Besides, the Balkh-Badakshan campaign, and the Kandahar campaigns during Ala Hazrat’s reign consumed a lot of our resources. Without imposing taxes upon my subjects, I could not really have run the administration of this country effectively for a long time. Besides, jizya has been imposed only on the non-Muslim able-bodied men who refuse state service. It is not collected from women, children, old men and people with disabilities. The Mughal state collects compulsory zakat, ushr, sadaqah, fitrah and khum from its Muslim subjects, which are much higher than jizya. They are not collected from non-Muslims. My subjects do not have a problem with that. All these rumours are being spread by the Marathas and other dissenters.”
The Emperor’s answer made me fumble for a moment. I have always read in history books that Aurangzeb was a monster who tortured Hindus and made them pay jaziya. What the Emperor said gave an entirely different picture. I looked towards Mirza Jai Singh for confirmation…and he gave me a look of approval. I continued with our conversation.
“Zill-i-Illahi, why did you keep Emperor Shah Jahan under house-arrest for eight years?”
“Circumstances forced me to do it. Ala Hazrat had arranged for my assassination by Turkish slave girls. He never legitimised my claim on the throne and wanted Dara Bhai to succeed him. He went in for a series of intrigues against me. I had no other option but to put him under house arrest. I wish he had accepted me. I would have had no need to kill Dara Bhai then.”
The conversation had become too political and I realised that the Emperor might lose interest in it soon. I decided to change the track of the conversation.
“Sire, tell us something about your love life. You had an arranged marriage with Dilras Bano Begum. How have been your relations with her?”
“Dilras Bano has been a dutiful wife. She is a Safavid princess and has all the princess-like qualities. She is the mother of two of my favourite sons, Mirza Akbar and Muhammad Azam. I have good relations with her.”
“But Sire, I have heard that you had fallen deeply in love with a Hindu lady named Hira Bai Zainabadi. Could you tell us something about it?”
“I think it is all too personal. Can we talk about something else?”—the Emperor looked uncomfortable.
History says that Aurangzeb fell hopelessly in love with Hira Bai Zainabadi. She was a trained musician and the Emperor used to spend long hours listening to her music. She, however, died young and left the Emperor heart-broken. This left a deep wound in his heart that never healed, for the Emperor shunned music from his life forever.
“Alampanah, let me rephrase it. It is said that you have banned music in your empire because you are a bigot. Do you think Hira Bai’s death has anything to do with it?”
“This is rubbish! I have banned music only in my court. That is because my courtiers spend a lot of time drinking and watching courtesans/musicians perform. That is why I have banned it in my court. However, I have also raised the mansabs and salaries of my court musicians for not playing music. Some of my subjects have misread it. I have not imposed any restrictions on them. And let me tell you, this has nothing to do with Hira Bai.”
“But Sire, you yourself are an accomplished veena player. Why such an aversion to music then?”
“It is a matter of personal choice. I would not like to comment more on this.”
“All right, Sire. Let us talk about your conflict with the Marathas under Shivaji. Why is the Emperor of Hindustan fighting unnecessarily with such a small kingdom? Does it suit His Majesty’s standard”?
“The Maratha problem is not a small problem as you think. I personally admire Shivaji. He is a great warrior and general. He has scope for improvement, though. And that can only happen if he accepts Mughal service. He is trying to imitate Mughal customs, but has not been very successful with it. I am willing to give him a high mansab if he should accept state service. We already have Marathas serving in the imperial army. If he (Shivaji) joins us, both the imperial government and Maharashtra will benefit.”
“All right, Your Majesty. What do you think of the young generation?”
“I do not have a high opinion about the young generation. My own sons are slackers of the highest order. Now, look at Azam. He is the Subahdar of Bengal, but spends most of his summer time in Kashmir. The youngsters today do not like to obey their parents. Allah save this country!”
At that time, the bell of public justice rang, which meant that it was the time for the Emperor to leave for the Diwan-i-Aam to hear petitions. This meant that my interview was almost over. Still, I managed to chip in one final question. I asked him for his vision of Hindustan’s future.
“By the grace of Allah, the compassionate and the merciful, Hindustan would become the most powerful mulk under the benign rule of the Mughal Government. The sun will never set on the Mughal Empire.”
As I retired to the time machine, the taste of the sharbat still lingered on. On any day, it would score over the Pepsis and Cokes of my time. It was a memorable experience talking to the last great name of the House of Timur. “This will make a great story”—I murmured to myself. But just when I pressed the ignition button, I suddenly realised that I forgot to collect my laptop from Mirza Jai Singh. This forgetful nature of mine would land me on dire straits someday. Now, I will have to go back in time to get it. But it won’t be too much of a loss, though. I am sure I have a great story in hand, which will be more than a compensation. I am going back to my time…the 21st century India.