This novel is a fine blend of historical fiction and magical realism, the two genres which seem to be Rushdie’s favorite ways to present his work. Author brings the contemporary towns from the history of east and west together and the historical characters brought to life to tell this tale.
A yellow-haired traveler from Italy visits the court of the Mughal king Akbar and he has a secret to reveal to the king. He claims that he is a blood relative and the son of a sister of Babur (Akbar’s grandfather). While the ministers of Akbar ask the king to ignore the visitor, the king checks this matter with his mother who confirms that Babur had a sister who was long forgotten and erased from family history for a reason. Akbar lets the visitor to tell the story for which he had come from far away land.
There begins the story of the enchantress, a younger sister of Babur, Qara Koz, the beautiful princess. King Babur had two sisters and the younger one was Qara Koz. Babur after losing a battle at Samarkhand to Shaibani Khan loses his sisters in exchange for his safe return. When Shaibani Khan loses the battle to the King of Persia, Babur’s sisters find a new shelter and thus become a subject of the war and prized possessions of the war's victor. When the King of Persia offers to release the sisters, elder one returns to Babur but Qara Koz remains with the Persian king. When Persian king is defeated by Ottoman Sultan in another war, she follows an Italian army major who was part of the winning side. Then she is led to the fascinating town of Florence. Qara Koz, the enchantress puts her occult skills to good use and mesmerizes the whole town and commands a respect from all the occupants of the town. But that too comes to an end. In a dream, she foresees that a descendant of Babur will become a king of great power the history has not seen yet. She knew she is destined to go back to her family. She ends her life, a symbolic death, only to come back alive after decades.
Image Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
While Akbar listens through the story, he puts his best painter in the kingdom to create the portraits of the forgotten princess and installs them in his palace. As the Italian visitor who has already become a confidant of Akbar (and is no more a visitor) reaches the end of this story, the enchantress comes alive to become a lover of Akbar.
Since this is a work of fiction, Salman Rushdie has created many characters in this novel out of his pen, few incidents may not be historically accurate but that is not the objective of this book anyway. It does not intend to capture the history and describe the persons and places but to see the historical characters as they lived their life, dilemma they went through and make it dramatic to entertain the readers.
I was not convinced with how the novel ends and disapprove the family incest of Akbar with Qara Koz. But the author justifies this saying family incest is common among Camels. That does not explain the matter satisfactorily. My belief is, Akbar was a stronger person than this novel describes, he did not suffer from Oedipus complex either and he would not have said “Until you are not” to Qara Koz like his character in the novel does.