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.