December issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 17 years ago

William Dalrymple is a powerful storyteller, with an eye for detail and anecdote, and he has the rare ability to make history come alive. His meticulously researched, ground-breaking work is particularly important because he challenges western misconceptions of the oriental, Muslim ‘other’ — notions perpetuated by the imperial narratives of the past — and he reaches huge audiences.

In his previous, award-winning book, The White Mughals, Dalrymple broke new ground with his exploration of inter-racial marriages and the easy-going symbiotic relationship between Indians and the British from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth. However, as Mughal power waned and the British established their hegemony over India, the white Mughals — Indianised Britons — became a dwindling and dying breed.

Under the impact of the industrial revolution, Evangelism and their new mission of civilising the natives, the British in India no longer had any desire to fraternise with Indians, or acquaint themselves with their languages and customs. In the era that Bahadur Shah Zafar ascended the throne, the ‘great’ Macauley declared “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Dalrymple touches on this backdrop in his new book, The Last Mughal, which revolves around the tragic figure of Bahadur Shah Zafar and brings to light a wealth of new information. He also carries the story of the British in India forward to that great watershed in Anglo-Indian relations: the Uprising of 1857. Dalrymple asserts that it was neither a mutiny nor a war of Independence, but rather “a chain of very different uprisings and acts of resistance whose form and fate were determined by regional situations, passions and grievances.”

More than that, the book describes a brilliant and magnificent city — Mughal Delhi — and details its culture and customs; it also tells of the great literary renaissance that Bahadur Shah Zafar inspired, despite a title reduced by the British from Mughal Emperor to King of Delhi and with little power beyond the Red Fort. Zafar was an accomplished Urdu poet too. His name is virtually synonymous with poignant, melancholy verses, which the late Ahmed Ali so elegantly translated into English, and from which Dalrymple quotes:

My life now gives no ray of light,
I bring no solace to heart or eye,
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.

Dalrymple reveals that Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote mystic verses in Persian, Punjabi and Brij Bhasha too. He was a skilled calligrapher and a patron of art and architecture. As a young man, he was also “a renowned rider, swordsman and archer” and a crack shot. While Urdu’s great poets, Zauq and Ghalib, famously vied with each other to take their place as the Emperor’s ustad, successive British residents treated him with increasing disdain. They could only perceive him in terms of the power and wealth he, an impoverished puppet-king, had lost — and which they now enjoyed.

Dalrymple provides a moving portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar during the Uprising. He was 82 when the Uprising broke out. Sepoys streamed into Delhi en masse to ask for his support. He thought them rustic, uncouth and ill-mannered. He vacillated, but overcome by the desire to reclaim his inheritance, he assented. The aura of his name gave the Uprising a legitimacy and a focus. But he was never quite in control. His page, Zahir Dehlavi, who later wrote an invaluable memoir, Dastan-e-Ghadr, described Bahadur Shah’s horror when he learnt the sepoys wanted to slaughter the British families held prisoner in the fort. He pleaded with them. He asked the sepoys, Hindus and Muslims, to consult their religious leaders if they had the authority to massacre helpless women and children. “Their murder can never be allowed,” he added. But in the end, he failed to prevent it.

Throughout the book there is wonderful drama as the narrative alternates between British and Indian perspectives. This includes stories of various Delhi inhabitants, such as the pro-British Hakim Ahsanullah Khan and Bahadur Shah’s conniving and ambitious wife Zinat Mahal. She had but one motive: to assure the accession of her spoilt young son, Jiwan Bakht.

Dalrymple criticises Indian and British historians for portraying all Mughal princes as an indolent breed. In his narrative, the Emperor’s son, Mirza Mogul, emerges as a most commendable and dynamic man, who takes charge of Delhi’s rebel troops and administration. The many cameo portraits include a glimpse of a Loharu prince and the future poet and critic, Azad, who sees his rebel father being hanged, and is forced to flee his home. The only item he carries away with him is Zauq’s unpublished poetry.

The eyewitness accounts of Ghalib and the journalistic pro-rebel writings of Azad’s father, Maulvi Mohammed Baqar, are quoted extensively. The book also brings out the differences between the tolerant religious philosophy of the Mughals and the new breed of fanatical jihadis who join the rebels and want to declare war on the Hindus as well — a catastrophe that Bahadur Shah does manage to avert. The rebel sepoys included more Hindus than Muslims. Both used the lingua franca of the time and called their fight against the British a jihad against Christians and kafirs — and, it transpires, that the famous Enfield rifle was indeed greased with cow and pig’s fat at first.

In the subcontinent, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s name conjures up images of a rich cultural and historical legacy and a great tragedy. However, in Britain, hardly anyone has heard of him. This makes William Dalrymple’s haunting book all the more significant, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Uprising. Also, his is the first book about that conflict to bring together and draw from both Urdu and English sources.

Dalrymple says that he discovered there were “two parallel streams of historiography” about 1857. One, in English, where even post-independence Indian writers used only English language sources and “padded” in the gaps. The other, by contemporary Urdu writers in India and Pakistan, which relied on a rich seam of Urdu and Persian texts. His aim was to bring these primary Urdu and Persian resources to an English reading audience for the first time.

He also unearthed a mass of unexplored and unused material: 20,000 Persian and Urdu documents called ‘The Mutiny Papers’ in the National Archives of India; Bahadur Shah Zafar’s prison records in Rangoon; and the pre-Mutiny records of the British residency in Delhi — which were believed to have been destroyed — in Lahore’s Punjab Archives, near the one-time office of Sir John Lawrence.

As the book builds up to the Uprising, Dalrymple brings a rich panoply of full-blooded British characters vividly to life. There are imperialist British officials, fanatical Evangelists and others, who regard India with contempt. There are the old-Indian hands such as Robert and Harriet Tytler, who are appalled at the hubris and insensitivity of this new breed and fear the worst; then there are those of British and Indian descent, such as the children of the half-Rajput colonel, James Skinners.

Dalrymple pinpoints the many ambiguities of 1857 and reveals that, despite the rhetoric of racial superiority, many of the British had Indian relatives, including the Resident, Sir Thomas Metcalfe. He not only discusses the complexities of Sir Thomas’s relationship with Delhi in some detail, but also recounts the chilling tale of his hot-headed son Theo, who heads a lynch-mob and commits terrible atrocities in the name of justice when the British defeat the rebels. There are other larger-than-life characters, such as General Nicholson and Sir John Lawrence, who played a key role in the British victory.

Dalrymple does not flinch from describing the appalling British reprisals on Delhi. He maintains that the incensed Lord Canning wanted to raze Delhi to the ground, but Sir John Lawrence, who masterminded the recapture of the city, dissuaded him. However, the destruction, looting and killing by the British in 1857 was far more horrific than the infamous sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah, says Dalrymple. He quotes Ghalib, one of the city’s few survivors:

The Chowk is a slaughter ground
And homes are prisons.
Every grain of dust in Delhi
Thirsts for Muslims’ blood.
Even if we were together
We could only weep over our lives.

The book begins with the ignominious burial of Bahadur Shah Zafar in an unmarked grave in Rangoon and culminates with his trial and tragic years in exile.

Dalrymple’s great love for Delhi and his fascination with its Mughal past reverberate throughout the book. He is now writing a series of books about the four Great Mughals.