William Dalrymple, then a young man at 18, arrived in
Dalrymple eschews the analytical form — which a lot of history writing is caged in — and draws out his tale in rich narrative. In an interview, he says, "Since the '80s onwards, there was a return to how history writing had always been done from the time of Gibbon and so on…History is the telling of things past. It's a city with many mansions." This approach heralds two advantages: not only does the story of the 1850s Delhi come alive in prose that closely mirrors fiction, but also it gives Dalrymple the space to indulge the lives of the tiny players in the uprising — from fruitsellers to courtesans, the story of the last days of the Mughal empire comes alive in the minutest details imaginable. Dalrymple reportedly gleaned over 20,000 Mutiny papers at the National Archives in
What Dalrymple focuses on is the religious nature of the uprising. While the sepoy mutiny is given prominent focus in the book, Dalrymple is careful to maintain that the incidents that led to the uprising were clearly aimed at getting rid of "the other," in this case, the Christian rulers. Several different theatres of aggression were operating at the same time, such as civil uprisings in
The central strand of the book is Zafar's acquiescence to the uprising and the aftermath, which he was to bitterly regret. In
From the massacre of innocent Christians to the heavy-handed British reprisal, Dalrymple's tale evokes how history is often not the grand sweeping narrative it is portrayed to be, but the messy outcome of circumstance, destiny and individual action, or lack thereof. As he writes, "When Delhi fell in September 1857 it was not just the city and Zafar's court which were uprooted and destroyed, but the self-confidence and authority of the wider Mughal political and cultural world." Zafar was banished to
The book ultimately is a lament to this loss, the loss of a rich culture that imbibed the best of Hinduism and Islam, and one that never really made a comeback to the bylanes of this ancient city. Thanks to Dalrymple, we can now get a peek into the last moments of a beguiling era.==========
This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. The original link is here.