Elegy for an Empire: The Last Mughal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 18, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 18, 2007

Elegy for an Empire: The Last Mughal

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A writer strikes gold--figuratively, if not literally-- when he chances on a subject that engages his whole being. William Dalrymple struck gold both figuratively and literally with his discovery of the eponymous White Mughals of his hugely successful book (2002). The term is apparently his own coinage and designates Occidentals of rank who went native in India: the likes of British Residents at the courts of (Maha)rajas, Nawabs and Nizams who chewed paan, puffed on hookahs, wore pyjamas instead of trousers, married Indian 'bibis' or kept them as mistresses, took at least a dillettantish interest in Indian culture, and sometimes even converted to Islam or adopted Hindu ways.
The White Mughal's heyday was the early colonial phase, from say 1770 till 1830; but pretty soon he had clearly become an oddity, and after the 1857 Uprising he simply wouldn't be tolerated by the new Raj. The colourful hybridity of the White Mughals has long been common knowledge and a subject of historical investigation, e.g. in Percival Spears ' The Nabobs (1963) and a host of more recent studies. Dalrymple's chief distinction is that he writes beautifully and with passionate empathy (he may in fact be described as a latter-day White Mughal, spending half the year in India). The Urdu literary efflorescence centred on Bahadur Shah Zafar's court, with Zauq and Ghalib locked in implacable rivalry, is vividly evoked, as is the life of the White Mughals around Delhi, among whom there were a few outstanding Urdu poets. Both the major and minor characters caught up in the cataclysm are memorably portrayed. Zinat Mahal, the young Queen, secretly in league with the English, tries till almost the end to have her feckless son recognized as the heir to the throne. The doomed emperor has Lear-like moments when he appoints courtiers as satraps to provinces long out of Mughal control. Denied use of pen and paper as a prisoner, he scribbles verses on the wall with a burnt stick; and gives in to childhood excitement when on his way to exile he sees his first train or contemplates the sea travel that awaits him: sad comedy indeed! The maniacal determination with which the decimated Brits regroup and strike back is the stuff of thrillers.
Two more notable traits of the book should be mentioned, one having to do with intellectual content, the other with its scholarship: Dalrymple extracts from the age of the White Mughal a message for a world apparently trapped between clashing fundamentalisms (to adapt Tariq Ali's phrase); and he makes use of a vast trove of Mutiny Papers in Urdu, recording the experiences of ordinary Indians, which amazingly had all these years lain unexamined in the National Archives in Delhi. Dalrymple cannot, understandably enough, resist the temptation of taking a smart sideswipe at so-called subaltern historians who have increasingly resorted to an off-putting jargon while claiming to resurrect the repressed voices of history. The copious and revealing quotations from the vernacular records will make The Last Mughal: The fall of a dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007) a useful sourcebook for students.
There is a neat connection between the earlier book and The Last Mughal. The decline of the White Mughals led to the crisis that finished off the Mughal dynasty. From the time of Lord Cornwallis, who arrived in India fresh from his defeat at the hands of George Washington, through succeeding administrations, Company rule was hardening into a racialist colonialism, with the increasing arrogance and prejudices of the rulers steadily alienating them from the ruled. Matters were not helped by the advent of Evangelical Christianity, whose adherents were to be found not only among the clergy but among Company officials and soldiers as well. Both Hindus and Muslims began to fear that it was British policy to convert them wholesale. The bonhomie that had once bound the Indian soldiers and their British officers quickly eroded. Everyone knows how the Uprising was triggered off by the introduction of the new Enfield rifles and the cartridges greased with cow and pig fat that had to be bitten off before firing.
When rebellious sepoys from Meerut poured into Delhi and proclaimed allegiance to the 82-year-old Bahadur Shah II, he found himself on the horns of a dilemma. He could not countenance the rude manners of his new subjects nor entirely trust them since they had proved themselves capable of treachery. On the other hand, they offered him the only chance to preserve his dynasty: the British had already decided that after his death none of his heirs would succeed to the throne and the Mughal dynasty would become defunct. Very reluctantly, he assumed leadership of the rebellion.
Despite their initial successes and overwhelming numerical superiority, hindsight reveals that the rebels in Delhi were foredoomed. Among their fatal drawbacks were lack of leadership (the Indian officers were not trained to lead large formations), lack of intelligence (the British by contrast had an efficient spy network in the city and the court), and a threatened rift between the Hindu sepoys and citizenry, on the one hand, and, on the other, the suicide jihadis who flocked to Delhi in increasing numbers. The ruthlessness of the rebellion and of the British reprisals makes sickening reading, but it is the underlying ideological implications that still provide food for thought.
The Sepoy Uprising was a spontaneous outburst resulting from simmering discontent. It set off a chain reaction that engulfed almost the whole of northern India and cut across religious boundaries. Yet the kangaroo court that tried Bahadur Shah accepted the absurd prosecution claim that he had been the linchpin of a global anti-British conspiracy involving all the Muslim powers from Turkey eastwards, and further, that in this evil design 'Hinduism…is nowhere either reflected or represented.' The post-1857 Raj gave in to crass Islamophobia, which in turn infected the ascendant Hindus, facilitating the divide and rule policy that kept the Empire going until it was time to divide and quit.
Indian Muslim society split into two opposed camps, one advocating westernization and modernization; the other, inspired by Wahabism, advocating total rejection of the West and a return to 'pure Islamic roots'. Once again the latter are producing suicide jihadis to oppose Western neo-imperialism, which echoes the slogans of Evangelical Christianity. Dalrymple concludes that 'the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined,' and that 'There are clear lessons here' that the world will be foolish to ignore. Perhaps what we need to drive home the lesson, at least to the intelligent common reader, is a comprehensive multi-volume history of the varied relations -- not always conflictual -- between Christendom and the Muslim world.

Kaiser Haq is professor of English at Dhaka University. The book is widely available in Dhaka bookstores.

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