Babur Nama: Journal of Emperor Babur
Translated from the Chaghatai Turkish by Anette Susannah Beveridge
Abridged, edited, and introduced by Dilip Hiro
Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2006
THE SMELL OF KABUL
The book nearly drowned. Late in the evening, torrential rains caused the tent in which Babur was writing, to collapse. His drenched notes were wrapped in a carpet and blankets were piled on it. All that night, Babur was drying his notes. From these, in 1527 he started to dictate his Book of Babur, the Babur Nama. Babur knew how to write. Do not make elaborate sentences, and above all, ‘use plain, clear words’, he wrote to his son, ‘That will lessen your trouble and the reader’s’. Babur (1483 – 1530) was emperor of India, and he would be the founder of the Mughal dynasty.
He started in Central Asia, where tribal nomad leaders fought in shifting alliances based on family relations and expediency. The ultimate prize was the town of Samarkand. He was 10 years old in 1493, when he succeeded his father. To place that in global perspective, that was one year after Columbus discovered America. Babur was a descendant of Timur; he was a Chaghatay Turk. His own descendants would be called Mughals, but Babur himself was scathing on Mughals, ‘they . . . plunder their own side!’ At the age of 14 Babur got Samarkand, but lost it a few years later. Many of his retainers left him and he ‘could not help crying a good deal’. In the end, he found himself hiding in garden house in a small town suburb with two men who wanted to betray him. He managed to escape. In 1504, after one year hiding in the hills, Babur decided to conquer Kabul, a lost possession of his family. He set out with some 300 warriors. ‘Almost all of them travelled on foot’. One of his first acts was to shave for the first time. He was 23.
His family background gave him new followers and his bravery and strategic insights the conquest of the area. For 16 years he lived there, fighting in much the same way as he had done further north. Babur loved the place. It was easy to defend, and Kabul valley was ‘a most beautiful scene when the meadows are green’. Grapes and melons were plentiful, and Babur introduced plums and oranges. The climate? ‘If the world has another so pleasant, it is not known’. Babur was also a cultured man. His description of Herat was a declaration of love for its musicians, calligraphers and poets. Muhammad Bu Said was ‘foremost among wrestlers, wrote verse, composed themes and melodies . . . He was pleasant company’.
He loved to pass his time in pleasure gardens. In Babur’s parties the guests took majuun, space cake based on hashish. But mostly Babur offered wine. ‘The guests drank wine as if it was the water of life’, he wrote, ‘the party became cordial’. Babur was in the centre of it. He had planned to quit drinking at 40, and publicly renounced wine at 42, just before a large battle. For years afterwards Babur found it very hard to abstain.
Babur had made raids before into Hindustan, but in 1525 he decided to invade the country. His men did not like the idea. It was months of travelling from home. They did not understand the language. The hot season was hard to bear. And, ‘there was remarkable dislike and hostility between [Agra’s] people and mine’. But, as Babur pointed out, there was no alternative. ‘There is no supremacy and grip on the world without resources’. Even so, Babur, too, did not like his new possessions.
‘The towns and country of Hindustan are greatly wanting in charm. . . they are all of one sort’. Of the fruits, only the mangoes were good, if they were ripe. ‘The people . . . have no good looks; of social intercourse, paying and receiving visits there is none; of genius and capacity none; of manners none; in handicraft and work, there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes’. Their residences had ‘no charm, air, regularity or symmetry’. The peasants ‘go about naked’. But it was a large country with ‘masses of gold and silver’, and many ‘workmen of every kind’. It sounded remarkably like some English commentaries a few centuries later.
There was no cool running water. Babur made a garden with tanks and a bath house. ‘Then, in disorderly Hindustan, plots of garden were seen laid out with order and symmetry, with suitable borders and parterres in every corner, and in every border rose and narcissus in perfect arrangement’. Babur also had melons and grapes planted, which gave him much satisfaction. But really, it was Afghanistan he was longing for. One day he was cutting a melon, remembered Kabul, and burst out in tears.
His son Humayun succeeded him. Babur was buried in Kabul.
Babur wrote in Chaghatay Turkish; this edition is based on the 1921 translation by Anneth Beveridge. It was abridged and edited by Dilip Hiro. Mostly that is a recipe for destroying the text, but Hiro has succeeded very well. Babur’s words and style have survived. The moral of his book, if any, is not about the sociability of Indians. Rather it has a message about Afghanistan. If you want to prolong you presence in Afghanistan, you must do as the Afghans do – and you must enjoy it.
Published January 22, 2013