Monday, December 6, 2010

Book review: White Mughals

Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 580
Price: Rs 499

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, December 06, 2010 at 12:41:45 PM

"William Dalrymple is that rarity, a scholar of history who can write... This is a brilliant and compulsively readable book," - author Salman Rushdie's comment on the book's cover is reason enough why you should pick up White Mughals.

Unlike its cultural cousins - Delhi and Lucknow - little has been written in the West about Hyderabad. The lifestyle of the Nizams, the Deccani court culture,  the mingling of Hindu and Muslim rites, the riches of Golconda and the state itself, which till India's Independence was larger in size than France, have been both objects of fascination and mystery.

Against this backdrop of eighteenth-century Hyderabad, Dalrymple unravels a tale of romance, passion, intrigue, tragedy, debauchery, desertion and despair - one that is as unconventional and astonishing as it is heart-warming. The story of Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad and Khair un-Nissa, the great-niece of the Nizam's Prime Minister. On the face of it, White Mughals is a love story, but delve deeper and you'll find a political thriller with all elements of suspense and drama that a Bollywood pot-boiler can boast of.

Kirkpatrick fell in love with Khair and overcame many obstacles to marry her - not least of which was the fact that she was locked away in purdah and engaged to a local nobleman. His love for Khair was such that he later converted to Islam and even criticised the Company's bullying attitude towards Indian princes. By demonstrating his love for ‘Hindoostan’, he even made foes out of his own countrymen, including the then Governor General Lord Wellesley.

Dalrymple painstakingly reconstructs the events through letters written by James to his half-brother William, akhbars such as Gulzar-i-Asafiya, Abdul Lateef Shushtari's Tuhfat al'-Alam, diaries and despatches. Unfortunately, he manages to get only James's side of the story, for Khair remained veiled all her life and her letters were strangely destroyed not long after her death. All you get of her are slight references in James's letters and the only contemporary image of her painted in Calcutta c 1806-7 that makes for the book's cover.

The author writes, "At a time, and in a society, when women had few options and choices, and little control over their lives, Khair had defied convention, threatened suicide and risked everything to be with the man she eventually succeeded in marrying, even though he was from a different culture, a different race, and, initially from a different religion. Her love affair had torn her family apart and brought her, her mother, her grandmother and her husband to the brink of destruction. Then, just when it seemed that she had, against all the odds, finally succeeded in realising her dream, both her husband and children were taken from her, forever, and in her widowhood she was first disgraced, then banished and finally rejected." 

"As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart," Dalrymple writes. With the end of James and Khair, came the end of the intermingling between the European conquerors and their native conquests. The white Mughals ceased to exist and were "later delicately erased from embarrassed Victorian history books." The changing attitudes of the British is exemplified when James's former private secretary Henry Russell wears James's everyday-wear Mughal clothes as fancy dress.

Kudos goes to Dalrymple for bringing to life the court of Nawab Mir Nizam Ali Khan, Asaf Jah II with his crafty ministers and powerful begums, his political enemies and foreign allies. The author scores once again with his brilliant research and lucid prose. Working like an artist, Dalrymple first outlines the various British and Hyderabadi characters of the plot and then slowly fills in the colour and then the final touch-ups. He has done particularly well with the portrayal of Henry Russell who started off as James's private secretary in Hyderabad, then became widow Khair's lover who deserted her to pursue his own ambitions.

Of unbridled ambitions and unfulfilled promises, of human bondage and ties of love, with twists and turns and lots of suspense, White Mughals never ceases to surprise.

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