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Monday, March 10, 2014

Review of Last Moghul by William Dalrymple

The Last Mughal: The fall of a dynasty By William Dalrymple, Penguin, Rs 695

Writing to a free-floating man of letters in the summer of 1950, Hugh Trevor-Roper, then a young Oxford don, made a revealing confession: “I have been in Oxford incessantly, slowly — with infinite slowness — writing a book of infinite pedantic exactitude on a character of infinite dullness; but I must rehabilitate myself with the learned world after writing a best seller (The Last Days of Hitler).”

The yet-to-be Lord Dacre was only slightly guilty of caricature. Even before the standard-bearers of ideological fashion — Marxism, deconstructionist theory and post-modernism being the more ridiculous examples — perfected writing in indecipherable code, many professional historians had abandoned the art of “pedantic exactitude”. The writing of Indian history was among the foremost casualties — particularly after the establishment Marxists made ‘empirical research’ a term of vitriolic abuse. History became the battlefield of grand theories centred on loaded concepts such as feudalism, imperialism and the mode of production.

These skewed priorities may explain why it took some eight decades for a historian to requisition the huge bundles of the Mutiny Papers from the vaults of the National Archives in New Delhi and weave their contents into a compelling history of Delhi in 1857.

At a time when the government is devising plans to celebrate 100 years of an upheaval which began with the massacre in a Meerut church, it may sound awkward to express gratitude to a Briton — even if he is a Scot — for rescuing the annals of a bloody chapter of India from the pedants and pamphleteers. William Dalrymple hasn’t allowed himself to be distracted by the silly debate over the label to be attached to the events that led to the formal demise of the East India Company and the Timurid dynasty — he has merely called it the Uprising. He has focussed on telling a gripping story as seen through the eyes of Britons and Indians who were caught in the maelstrom. The Last Mughal is narrative history at its very best.

At the same time, the book provides larger insights into the nature of the Uprising. At the root of the sepoy disquiet was a real fear that their faith was being subverted by the rising clout of Christian evangelists who combined their contempt for native religions with racial high-handedness. There is little evidence in this study of economic deprivation or dislocation hardening native attitudes against the Company. Dalrymple’s account of the shift in Anglo-Indian attitudes, from the nativism of the White Mughals to the Bible-thumping of individuals such as Padre Jennings, is telling. There is also the parallel story of a hitherto unknown subterranean jihadi current which, while motivating a clutch of sepoys and Muslim citizens into undertaking fanatical resistance, also undermined the unity of the opposition to British rule.
The ambience of the Mughal court in decline and the personality of the last emperor are the two central themes of this book, and Dalrymple’s account is both evocative and sensitive. The meaningless intrigues involving the succession plans of the two principalbegums of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the decrepitude of the salatins — the most appropriate translation would be royal trash — the dissolute life of the princes and the make-believe poetic world around the emperor, Mirza Ghalib and Zauq are wonderfully captured. In contrasting the ordered life in the British Civil Lines with the dissolute bohemianism around the Mughal court, Dalrymple paints a picture of two cities in an “uneasy equilibrium”. It is a portrait of two very different worlds — one assertive and calculating, and the other, in the throes of terminal decline. From a reading of the social life in Delhi before May 1857, it is easy to gauge why the military campaign against the beleaguered British army was marked by incredible ineptitude and why the Uprising ended the way it did.
One major shortcoming of Dalrymple’s narrative is that while the life of the British officials, civilians and the Mughal court is vividly documented, Delhi’s other half — the Hindus — appears as incidental extras. There is, for example, hardly any attempt to comprehend the political and moral economy of the pillaging Gujars who surrounded the countryside around Delhi but rarely put in an appearance inside Shahjehanabad. Equally, Dalrymple is somewhat perfunctory in his treatment of the Hindu financiers who played such an important role in the economy of Delhi. What, apart from sullenness over unrealizable loans to the royal family, propelled them into becoming British informers' Why was there such a divergence of attitudes between the Hindu, moneyed classes in Delhi who preferred the “Company’s peace”, and the overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu sepoys who imagined that self-respect lay in a resurrected Mughal empire'
Part of the omission can be explained by the nature of the primary sources. The Mutiny Papers were collected by the officials of the Crown as offshoots of judicial proceedings against the rebels and an attempt to grapple with the “Muslim problem”. Yet, since the issue of future recruitment of upper-caste Hindus from the cow-belt into the British Indian army did occupy the minds of administrators, it is inconceivable that the “Hindu problem” wasn’t simultaneously addressed.
Dalrymple, it would seem, is engulfed by wistful nostalgia. Today, he writes with some bitterness and more than a touch of naïveté, “if you visit the Mughal city of Agra…note how the roundabouts are full of statues of the Rani of Jhansi, Shivaji and even Subhas Chandra Bose; but not one image of any Mughal emperor has been erected anywhere in the city since Independence”. The ticklish consequences of installing a statue of any Muslim notwithstanding, Dalrymple’s gripe is that while the ancien regime suffered the barbaric consequences of the failure of the Uprising, it was a new Anglophone India which moulded the nation’s recovery of self-esteem.
A melancholic lament for the world we left behind doesn’t detract from the richness of Dalrymple’s history. Indeed, it contributes immeasurably to its narrative force. Historians, like balladeers of yore, aren’t obliged to be either non-judgmental or treat their subjects as lifeless objects. Dalrymple belongs to a line of writers outside academia — Sir Arthur Bryant, Isaac Deutscher, A.N. Wilson and Andrew Roberts are a few names that come to mind — who have rescued history from the professional practitioners of “infinite dullness”. We await his future writings on Mughal India with expectation.
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1 comment:

M S Mehta said...

The trend of popular historians writing narrative history is gathering steam in recent years. Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers provides a fabulous account of the run up to World War I and is a fine example of this sort of writing. Both Dalrymple and Clark are extremely engaging, while remaining accurate at the same time.