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The Foolish Men of Agra and Other Tales of Mogul India

by Rina Singh, Farida Zaman, illus.

Akbar was a Mogul emperor of India who ruled between 1556 and 1605. The Moguls were Moslem, and Akbar is remembered, not only for consolidating the empire begun by his grandfather, but for winning acceptance among the Hindu population. In The Foolish Men of Agra, Rina Singh tells 10 short stories of Akbar and his favourite courtier, Birbal, who was Hindu. In “The Reward,” Birbal outwits a corrupt guard who seeks to line his own pockets with the money Akbar bestows upon visiting artists. In “The Journey to Heaven,” Birbal foils a plan by jealous courtiers to murder him and sees his would-be assassin punished for his tricks by the same method that would have killed him. Many of the tales, however, focus on the need for humility even among the very great. In the title tale, Birbal finds foolish men for Akbar, then adds his own name and that of the emperor to the list for undertaking such a silly quest. In two tales, “Birbal’s Khirchri” and “The Man Who Brought Bad Luck,” Birbal uses his wit to remind the emperor to be kindly and avoid using his power with a heavy hand.

Farida Zaman’s illustrations are richly coloured, but almost cartoon-like with uneven borders and colours that overlap and blend with little regard for formal outlines. The result is cheerful, but perhaps not as good technically as the general run of current Canadian illustrations. But these tales are entertaining, and Singh tells them in a straightforward, easy-to-read style. The underlying messages – the value of kindness and humility over brute force and cunning, and the idea that people from diverse cultures can form lasting friendships – are delivered with a very light touch and should be well received.