Tuesday, April 21

Enchanted by the 'White Mughals'

Last evening we watched an episode of Seinfeld where George in this special Georgian way says, "I would like to be a Civil War buff." Absurd as it may be, there couldn't have been a better way of putting what I felt reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India. I am no history buff, but if someone can make history as engrossing and beautiful as Dalrymple does, it would be hard to not be one.

The book could have been a romantic non-fiction about James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa's love story set in 18th C Hyderabad, and still be a good read. But Dalrymple transcends that to make it an exploration of the society of those times, the symbiosis of British and Indian (mostly Islamic) cultures, the inevitable romantic liaisons, the attempts at increasing tolerance and understanding between the two, and the gradual decay of the white mughal era as British dominance spread across India. It paints a vivid picture of that part of history left out of history books, a part that humanizes both sides. At a time when the 'clash of civilizations' rhetoric is dominating policy attitudes and people's mindsets, Dalrymple's book attempts to prove otherwise. The concluding sentences of the book display his belief in the incorrectness of the rhetoric.

"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. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again."

Apart from the lessons to be learnt, the book awes us with the depth and breadth of its research. It is not a romanticized version of what might have been, but a factual referenced representation of those days. The numerous footnotes add significantly to the story and provide tit bits that should not be missed. Even for those who have never been to India or Hyderabad, it wouldn't be difficult to picturize the city. His writing does justice to the details he provides and continues to engross all through the 400 odd pages. The chances of falling into a boring account of Indian society in the 18th C are many, and instead he converts them into something exciting. Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa are absent from a large part of the book as Dalrymple talks about the Nizams, other British officials, Calcutta, Poona, Lucknow. But you can always feel their presence. Those descriptions seem essential parts of their story, and as a whole they are important to understanding and appreciating their romance.

Each character, no matter how insignificant is etched out in great detail such that you 'know' everyone. Dalrymple's personal opinion about the character never seems to prejudice his descriptions. Each character is an individual and you are free to form your opinions. He doesn't force you in any particular direction. This I think is a crucial quality in presenting historical accounts. At the same time his admiration for the white mughlas and Indian culture are evident through every sentence. But that admiration is definitely no juvenile infatuation. It is the admiration of a careful observer, a student and researcher. There are numerous books about India by non-Indians that repel with their patronizing and/or condescending tones. And others that blindly romanticise a exotic land. This book does neither.

No matter if you enjoy love stories, history, beautiful language, or simply books, 'White Mughals' is a must read. Even in its tragedy it is a feel good story; in its antiquity, contemporary.

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