White Mughals by William Dalrymple is an interesting blend of history and a real life romance. It is not just the romance of two people, but the romance of two cultures. It is set between the late 18th century and mid 19th century in India, which, at the time, was a melting pot of a variety of cultures and religions from all over the world.
Dalrymple seamlessly weaves in the minute details of the lives of the couple and their close associates, set in the backdrop of a fast changing world, where a liberal and cosmopolitan culture is being fragmented by the rise of bigotry, much like the curdling of milk by acid.
The book focuses on the overlap between Indo-Islamic and British cultures mainly through the eyes of James Kirkpatrick, the British resident in Hyderabad, Khair-un-Nissa, his bride from a Mughal aristocratic family, and their close associates and friends.
With the march of time from the late 1700s to 1857, people of the two cultures, that once shared mutual respect and admiration, come to distrust and despise each other. The book explores this period of transition on two vastly different scales. On one hand it documents, with broad brush strokes, the history and generally visible trends of the period. On the other hand it examines the period through personal correspondences and memories of a few people, who found themselves deeply affected by the changing society.
Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa struggle to keep up with the changing values and outlook of society. Khair never once hears from her own children after they are shipped off to England to be educated at a tender age. The increasing bigotry, makes a British education necessary for their long term well being. With James dead, the English care givers of his children, force them to sever all ties with their Mughal mother.
The Palmer family (William Palmer married Faiz, a woman from an aristocratic Muslim family), who are close family friends of James and Khair, too suffer, unable to keep up with the changing times. Their strong principles of fairness, active conscience and particular skills of interacting with people of both cultures with ease, becomes increasingly obsolete. Instead, people who adapt to changing morality with chameleon like ease, to suit themselves, thrive in these times.
The British, who learned to blend in with Indian society, and were once considered a great asset to the East India company, are now regarded with increasing disdain by the new generation of British officials. Similarly Indians too, come to distrust the British. The widening chasm culminates in the bloodshed of the revolution of 1857 after which reconciliation becomes impossible.
Thus ends the era of the white Mughals, the last of who were tragically trapped in the ever widening rift, between the two cultures.
+ + +
- The book presents the history of the period through the eyes of different people, in different positions and from different cultures and upbringing, through their personal correspondences.
- It also presents information from various documents, official papers, wills and archived data, obtained through extensive research. It discusses the friction between the changing British regime in Calcutta, and old time British residents of other provinces, who have come to think of India as home, through official correspondences exchanged between them.
- The book explores the part of Indo-British history, that was brushed under the carpet and suppressed, by both cultures, as a result of increasing hostilities that later developed between them.
- Dalrymple points out that it is not impossible for two vastly different cultures to coexist peacefully. They can do so successfully to their mutual benefit when people are open minded and accepting. But when bigotry raises its ugly head, bridges built between cultures over efforts of generations, can be destroyed in a flash. An important observation for our, perhaps all, times.
. . .
- Personally, I found this account interesting, because in school I was taught a lot of history from the Maratha perspective, where the Nizam was presented as a personification of evil, almost like Voldemort. But this book presents the Nizam in a sympathetic light as a cultured, slightly eccentric, lovable man, with an exaggerated sense of entitlement no doubt. This reminded me that history needs to be read from many different perspectives before one can even start to get a realistic picture.
! ! !
- The struggles of three generations coping with a rapidly changing social landscape.
History shaped their story.