Review of ‘White Mughals’ by William Dalrymple

White Mughals

For the last three (3) years, I must confess that I have been reading quite voraciously while I am writing a lot too. Not that I am planning to leave the planet or anything close to that but I feel that there is so much that needs to be read thus I find too little time and too much to achieve. As René Descartes had put it ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ which translates to ‘I think therefore I am’; I can comfortably add that ‘I read and write, therefore I am’.
I would probably cease to exist if I don’t read and I have been in this business since I was seven. Yes, seven! I can hardly recall that my bedside table would not have a cheap paperback sitting on it since the time I had learnt to read.
Lately I had picked up the ‘White Mughals’ by William Dalrymple and had started reading it since the end of October 2011 and while I had started to enjoy this voluminous classic, I have bought ‘Aleph’ by Paulo Coelho and ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ by Mohammed Hanif.
I was under the impression that along with 40 hours of work week, I could easily finish reading this and get it done and over with in a usual one month sweep but I was sadly mistaken. This book by Dalrymple has been so contagious that except for reading it while asleep and in the loo; I have practically been feasting on it at red light stops (not the red light area; for Pete’s sake), in the parking lots, while waiting when my wife does the groceries and during the long queues of waiting time while filling up Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) at CNG stations just to mention a few. Yes, things have gone so bad in this ‘Land of the Pure’ that we have to wait in line for at least an hour every Wednesday and Sunday to get CNG in Islamabad. Natural Gas, a commodity which we have consumed so rapaciously that it is almost close to depletion or extinction, for that matter!
William Dalrymple although being born on the far shores of Firth of Forth in Scotland moved to South Asia sometimes in 1989 and now lives on a farm in Delhi with his wife and three children. He wrote his first book ‘In Xanadu’ at the age of 22. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. He has not stopped since then and has written one masterpiece after another like City of Djins, From the Holy Mountain, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The last Mughal, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. I have come to learn that he is currently working on: The Return of a King: Shah Shuja, the Great Game and the First Battle for Afghanistan.
Before I get carried away, let me broach on the subject of this particular article i.e. ‘Review of the White Mughals – Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth – Century India’. I have read many historians on the subject about the advent of the East India Company on the warm shores of Hindustan (read India) since my childhood but the way Dalrymple narrates the love story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa, the betrayal and the subsequent tragedy that entails from 1798 onwards, it seems that he was very much present there to see and experience it all.
(An oil painting of James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764-1819), Lieutenant Colonel in the British East India company and its resident in the princely state of Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805)
This is the most touching love story to have sprouted from India since the time of Shah Jehan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal whose death resultantly inspired the edifice of the majestic Taj Mahal at Agra. Dalrymple has turned out to be the most analytical and sympathetic observer of the Raj and thus his subsequent writings.
(Pal Fest 2008: From L-R William Dalrymple, Esther Freud and Dr. Hanan Ashrawi)
Dalrymple so easily switches between the public story of the British conquest of India and the poignant love affair between the white Kirkpatrick and the not so white Khair, a Muslim noblewoman of Hyderabad that it almost becomes difficult to separate the one from the other. He has chartered new territory in the current debate about racism, colonialism and the global village to the extent that this book simply becomes irresistible to be left, sitting alone on the bedside table. Although, the manuscript is captivatingly complex but I have spent a good four months and a quarter to finish it before I could take a breather. It was just so difficult to put down. Period!
The underlying purpose of Dalrymple is to highlight how liberal and un-Victorian were the mores and norms of the Imperialist British in that era. He swiftly moves from battles, plots, sex and love to betrayal and ends up as a Master Historian at the end. He has given us a perspective which we never thought could have existed in the first place. I am simply at a loss of using more adjectives in praise of Dalrymple.
I believe the crux of this particular novel is the point that he wants us to bring home; the idea that the hypothesis of clash of civilizations is merely simplistic, full of naiveté, racist and to put it more bluntly, rubbish!
If you are still reading this, then it is time you go get your copy. Happy reading!

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