A Warlord’s Memoir Is Surprisingly Modern and Charming, When It’s Not Gruesome

Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), a descendant of Genghis Khan, was a warlord from Central Asia who invaded India and founded the Mughal dynasty. He kept a record of his life, now known as “The Babur Nama.”

In it we witness him doing things warlords were wont to do: foe-crushing, plundering, head-lopping, flaying, impaling and so forth. One didn’t want to give one’s enemies the impression one was soft.

It’s possible, I suppose, to come to “The Babur Nama” and read it as a work of military and political history. There is much to learn about sieges and catapults and flanking maneuvers and the realities of leading tens of thousands of hairy, hungry, rowdy, reeking men. There are fantastic achievements in corpse-making.

But the reason “The Babur Nama” speaks intimately across the centuries — the reason this book has been compared, with excellent reason, to the diaries of Samuel Pepys — is how intelligent, humane, self-critical and even light-souled it is.

Published now in a new edition from Everyman’s Library, “The Babur Nama” is how Pepys might read if every 50 pages or so he ordered his men to build towers of his enemy’s skulls.

Babur is charming and surprisingly modern company on the page. His name, among Western readers, deserves to be better known. If you only read one autobiography from a sensitive 16th-century warlord this year, make it this one.

Babur got back pain. When on boats, he lost things overboard. He broke a tooth while eating, and it was a bummer. He caught colds. He suffered thieves. (“That day someone stole the gold clasp of my girdle.”) He threw a punch and dislocated a finger. He got lost outside at night. He worried about his diet. (“This year I began to abstain from all doubtful food.”) He wept easily.

He was a great lover of jokes and harmless pranks. His mind was well-stocked with quotations of all varieties, and also with poems. Among the snippets of verse he summoned to mind, at an appropriate moment, was this one:

I am drunk, Inspector, today keep your hand off me,
Inspect me on the day you catch me sober.

Babur wrote verse of his own, and he was an erudite critic of the form. About one poet, he wrote: “His odes are tasty but better-flavored than correct.” About another: “Not to compose is better than to compose verse such as his.”

He liked games of intellect. About an avid chess player, he wrote: “He was madly fond of chess, so much so that if he had met two players, he would hold one by the skirt while he played his game out with the other, as much as to say, ‘Don’t go!’”

A polymath in the Jeffersonian style, Babur cared about architecture, urban planning, gardens, trees and fresh produce. He prized one variety of plum because it was “an excellent laxative medicine.” He seized a fort with ladders and, in the next sentence, rejoiced that it was melon season. A friend brought him fresh lotus seeds, which he called “first-rate little things just like pistachios.”

Babur was more Hal than Falstaff, and he didn’t like to be around drunken fools. But when he threw a party, it was a memorable party. (“People had brought a few beast-loads of wine from Nur-valley.”) There is a very funny passage in which he admits:

“Very drunk I must have been for, when they told me next day that we had galloped loose-rein into camp, carrying torches, I could not recall it in the very least. After reaching my quarters, I vomited a good deal.”

Babur preferred the gentler highs delivered by hashish and opium. He relates getting stoned with a librarian. He liked to ingest what he and his friends called confections. Here is a typical aside: “That day confection was eaten. While under its influence wonderful fields of flowers were enjoyed.”

He had wives but admitted to other infatuations. He called the keeping of catamites a “vile practice,” yet, at one moment, admits to falling so heavily in love with a boy that “to look straight at him or to put words together was impossible.” Lost in his swimming emotions, “like the madmen, I used to wander alone over hill and plain.”

He was a gifted travel writer. He took note of good cooks and bakers and paper makers. He was a raker-in of delights. But, as with nearly all travel writers, he’s most vivid when a place disappoints:

Hindustan is a country of few charms. Its 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, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hot-baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.

About Hindustan, he is just getting warmed up.

This volume reintroduces readers to this adroit translation by Annette Susannah Beveridge (1842-1929). The historian William Dalrymple, who contributes a sturdy new introduction, notes that Beveridge was the first translator of “The Babur Nama” into English from the original Turki, and was “a most unusual memsahib.”

Born in England, she arrived in India at 30 and fought for the education of women there. She composed her translation over many years; I would read a memoir about the feat. Her footnotes are both scholarly and winsome. Don’t skip them. She calls out overstatements and corrects facts. She makes comments like, “This puzzling word might mean cow-horn.” You sense she is enjoying Babur’s company, too.

Babur was liberal and tolerant for his time. There are many moments of forgiveness in “The Babur Nama,” of generosity and fellow feeling. But woe to those who crossed him.

After barely surviving an attempted poisoning, he pounced on the culprits and detailed the wet stuff of his retaliation. “That taster I had cut in pieces, that cook skinned alive,” he wrote. “One of those women I had thrown under an elephant, the other shot with a matchlock.”

A warlord, at times, had to warlord.

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