A Reading Pleasure: "The Last Mughal" By William Dalrymple
"Although a great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of 'suicide ghazis' from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, 'for those who have come to die have no need for food'.
"One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that 'the British had closed the madrasas'. These were the words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source, demanding attention."
It is, however, not the main emphasis. Rather Dalrymple highlights Bahadur Shah Zafar's great belief in cultural co-existence, and his genuine love of the multi-religious ethos of the city he was living in. How the last Mughal had to, time and again, oppose and reject the fanatic's design to bring a rift between Hindus and Muslims, how he tried his best, though unsuccessfully, to prevent the mayhem of the Europeans in Delhi have been dealt in detail in this opus. So, a reader who goes deep into the text will not misunderstand the focus just by reading the two paragraphs I have just quoted from the very first chapter of the book.
The book is undoubtedly the result of a thorough scholarship, yet it is the love of the author for the city of Delhi, its rich heritage that has given him the moving inspiration to pen the volume. To quote him: "…the loss of Delhi's past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early twenty-first century with a deep sadness".
It is just not a book of history; all the elements of fiction like suspense, the steady build-up of plot, the climax and the denouement stand out clearly, unmistakably. The ill-fated last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar was spearheading a renaissance in Urdu literature and possessed all the dignity of a royal patron. Yet he had neither the means nor the training to revive the military glory of his great ancestors; he wavered when his fate brought him near the throne with the support of trained military fellows; he could not rein in the various parties involved in palace squabbles. Everything about the personality has been considered in the book, and done so convincingly as to make him appear as a character that history had needed to write its epilogue: A king who is not a king should not be allowed to remain a king.
To substantiate the point that the author has offered the pleasure of a fiction in an otherwise drab research work, I would like to cite one of his nicest narratives in the book. It flows something like this: "During the early 1850s, it sometimes seemed as if the British and the Mughals lived not only in different mental worlds, but almost in different time zones." [Chapter 3 "An Uneasy Equilibrium", page 91] What he means by this peroration is that the timing of the various activities that the Mughals followed differed drastically from those followed by the Britishers. When it was time for the Britishers to sleep their beauty sleep, the Mughals remained wide awake, enjoying poetry in the mushairas or dance in the houses of the courtesans. In fact, it was only in the evening that Chandni Chowk used to start its business and people used to throng into the bazaars. By the time the sun was seen rising over the Yamuna, the poets, the courtesans and their patrons used to head back to their beds. This was the time the British soldiers and the civilians used to get up to take their morning exercises.
The details available in the book make one feel that by 1857 the winds of modernity was hundreds of miles away from India; not even the English who had seen printing machines and steam engines had shunned their mediaeval habits. It was seen from the greedy looting of Delhi by the British force following the debacle of the rebel sepoys and from their noisy demands to raze the city to ground. Was it not an act of vandalism? And a practice that was only too mediaeval?
Similarly, the author gives wealth of details as to how the sepoys-the Purbias or the Tilangas-who came to support the last Mughal and restore him as the legitimate ruler of India engaged themselves in unbridled looting. The uprising was, as though the author would conclude, not an entirely patriotic outburst for a pan-Indian cause. The conclusion is not anything if not reasonable and has eloquent support of the documents of the period.
Dalrymple comes to one of his pet themes again and again: there was a considerable cultural adaptation of the Europeans by adopting the Mughal way, by marrying Muslim wives, wearing Muslim dress, speaking chaste Urdu and so forth. He calls them the 'White Mughals'. There is a whole book he has devoted to this historical phenomenon and I am enthused to read it soon. In fact, I have already read Vikram Chandra's "Red Earth and Pouring Rains" where he has referred to the Scottish mercenary Hercules Skinner and his Rajputni mother, and James Skinner alias Bahadur Jang. By the time Sepoy Mutiny took place, this trend of cultural adaptation had already reversed; in fact it was long dying down under the pressure from the Christian missionaries.
An interesting aspect of the trial of the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar is there to read and reflect. Was the East India Company legally qualified to try Zafar? Perhaps not…definitely not. To quote the author:
"What was never discussed was whether the Company was legally empowered to try Zafar at all. For though the government took the position that Zafar received a pension from the Company, and was therefore the Company's pensioner and thus subject, the actual legal position was considerably more ambiguous. While the Company's 1599 charter to trade in the East derived from Parliament and the Crown, its authority to govern India actually legally flowed from the person of the Mughal Emperor, who had officially taken on the Company as his tax collector in Bengal in the years following the battle of Plassey, on 2 August 1765."
So, this is how I read the book, a book that has been made attractive to appeal a bibliophile who would not stop before buying one for her shelf. It is engrossing for a reader and its style makes it smooth, immensely readable. The editor-in-chief, the author's eleven-year-old daughter Ibby has earned my loving appreciation, and I am happy to mention this on my blog!
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review