Under my byline

My favourite assassination

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 13 March 2010

OVERLEAF 67

On the eve of the Ides of March, one’s thoughts turn naturally to assassination. Julius Caesar was punished for his ambition by Brutus, Cassius and their fellow conspirators — ambitious men themselves, though not Caesar’s equals in brilliance — and that famous event set a pattern for political murder that survives to the present day.

A popular dictator saves a republic from its overgrown politicians, only to become too big for his fellow aristocrats’ comfort. They kill him, only to free other forces which they cannot control, which ultimately destroy both the conspirators and their republic. But their mistake allows an inefficient martial republic to flower into an efficient bureaucratic empire. From their error springs the modern state and society.

You can read JC’s death in many ways. It survives as metaphor and parallel for every sort of human turning point, historic or personal. Among those involved there is no good guy and no bad guy. Morally, the waters are all turbid. This is truer to life than a lot of fiction, and more useful.

We owe a great debt to those who kept the story alive and polished its facets to reflect contemporary reality. Thank especially Suetonius the gossip and Plutarch the moraliser, both biographers who lived in the early Roman empire. And then thank William Shakespeare, whose play Julius Caesar not only immortalised some traditional lines, like the supposed last words, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!” but also created some immortal new ones, like these he gives Caesar to say:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

Not only did Shakespeare furnish English with much of its idiom and metaphor — its colour, in effect — and make literary quotation easy for his successors by doing so much of it himself, he also knew how important it was that his plays be current and topical. In 1599, when he wrote Julius Caesar, England was worrying about who would succeed Elizabeth I, the elderly virgin queen. Would there be civil war?

So now, who will do for India what Suetonius and Plutarch, but most of all Shakespeare, did for Europe? Who will turn our history into literature and bring it into the fabric of our everyday language? There is no lack of great historical characters here for the storyteller. One could start with a nice book of narrative history on the unnatural deaths of Indian rulers through history.

Here is my own favourite assassination story, from A Comprehensive History of India, volume 5, on “The Delhi Sultanat”, by the old-school historians Mohammad Habib and K A Nizami. The second dynasty of the Sultanate of Delhi was established by Balban, one of the great organisers of Indian history, and a man so jealous of his status that he wore his royal turban even to bed. While Balban came to power the traditional way — intrigue and violence — he tried to provide his heir Kaiqubad with a better start. The young man “was never allowed by his tutors to look at the face of a beautiful girl or to taste a drop of wine”.

As a result, the moment he became sultan, while still in his teens, “he gave himself up to debauchery and spent all his time in wine and venery”. The historians quote a contemporary biographer: “Ultimately, the royal horseman, impelled by the heat of sex-desire, drove his horse with such unheeding recklessness that it left half his body paralysed.” In other words, Kaiqubad caught an STD. At last, say the historians, a courtier “was sent to do the needful; he wrapped [the sultan’s] paralytic body in his bed-sheet and kicked him into the Jumna.” That was the end of the dynasty.

There are lots more stories like this in the chronicles — and thus, plenty of scope for drama and tragedy. Writers, if you’re stuck for a thrilling plot and vivid characters, Indian history is what you need.

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