Fun, moral tales based on the apparent interactions between emperor Akbar and his minister Birbal have entertained children for decades now. Earlier this year writer Apeksha Rao decided to not just add yet another Akbar-Birbal tale, but to give this iconic duo a meet-cute.
In fleshing out this origin story, Rao steps away from the confines of history and lets her imagination take flight. Akbar, Birbal, and the Haunted Gurukul is set in 1552, where a young Akbar has a penchant for fun and trouble, both in equal measure. With assassination attempts on future kings unfortunately common in that era dangers lurk, and Akbar has to be on guard. After one such incident with Nassie, his elephant, going on a rampage, trying to harm him, Akbar’s aunt Gul Phuppo plans to protect the future king by getting him to escape to the Vishwamitra Gurukul and live undercover.
And so, according to Rao, it is here that one of the most popular friendships in fiction for children, is forged — in Vishwamitra Gurukul, Akbar befriends Birbal and a few other commoners. Little do they know, however, that the school is haunted by a ghost. Soon, Akbar and his friends try to get to the bottom of the mystery behind a possible ghost.
Through the story, Rao touches upon issues like Akbar being pampered and being used to the best of luxuries — as he lives a simple life devoid of material pleasures, will he be able to battle these personal challenges, and also solve the mystery and help the gurukul? Will the future emperor of Hindustan be able to rise up to the occasion?
The tales of Akbar and Birbal have traditionally enamoured children in that they are somewhat in awe of the mighty emperor and his clever minister. Presenting these characters as children is appealing to young readers since it allows them to relate to Akbar-Birbal better. For instance, Birbal being bullied at the Gurukul or Akbar getting homesick while at the boarding house are common situations that will resonate with children.
The story has been marketed as a humorous tale, but what works in specific is the tact with which Rao is able to conjure up scenes with situational humour. This is also a deft way to add to the diversity of books that readers between 7-14 can be introduced to. In placing popular historical figures in a completely imagined, but also humorous context Rao proves to be a smart children’s writer.
Her characters are also meaty and well-fleshed out. In devising Gul Phuppo’s role the way she does, Rao is letting young readers understand how authority can work beyond titles and designated roles. Gul is wise, knows her mind, and doesn’t hesitate to express herself. She also shows through Gul that such unyielding control cannot be of and by itself — characters don’t mind this of Gul since she is unabashed about her fierce loyalty to the crown and her love for her family.
The illustrations by Doodlenerve complement the plot quite well since they tactfully capture the emotional tone of the story. The caricature-style drawings add a lightness to the tale.
What I’m most impressed by is how Rao is able to subvert popular notions (especially about the characters we’ve now known so well). For instance, Birbal can be witty, but why would this mean Akbar can’t match it up? We see Akbar come onto his own in the story. Moreover, the role of Gul Phuppo, albeit small, turns patriarchy on its head.
I believe that historical retellings infused with imagination provide young readers with the permission, and tools, to be able to construct their own worlds, and look at history from a refreshing lens. Such fun retellings can introduce young readers to the idea of multiple perspectives, even as they get to think differently about the import of history, even in its absence.
Dhanishta Shah is a freelance writer and book reviewer, currently pursuing further studies in psychology