Sunday, April 15, 2007

Review - The Last Mughal

A keen look at the end of an empire

William Dalrymple, then a young man at 18, arrived in Delhi for the first time in 1984. Since then, the writer-historian has had a near obsessive fascination with India's capital. The Last Mughal is the third in a series of books he has devoted to the city. While the first, City of Djinns, is a paean to his love affair with the Capital, the second, White Mughals recounts the history of the many British who embraced Mughal culture when they first arrived in the country. By the 1850s, however, this intermingling had given way to a hierarchical power structure which ultimately laid the foundation of the British empire in India. The Last Mughal delves into this latter part of the British presence in the subcontinent, focusing on the uprising of 1857 and the downfall of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

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 Delhi as part of his meticulous research for the book.

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 Lucknow, princely associations in Jhansi, peasant revolts in Doab and so on. But Dalrymple limits himself to Delhi, which was the center of the revolt, mainly because it happened to be the seat of the Mughal empire.

The central strand of the book is Zafar's acquiescence to the uprising and the aftermath, which he was to bitterly regret. In Delhi, at least, the uprising is portrayed as one that went far beyond the purview of eliminating the British. Wealthy but unpopular Marwari and Jain moneylenders were looted. For the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, the disappearing of a way of life defined by its syncretic character and love of the arts, was the primal jolt. The low-caste workmen, miscreants and prisoners let loose from the jails became enthusiastic participants in the uprising, fracturing it along caste lines. Dalrymple quotes court poet Ghalib's worry that a way of life, maintained by the Delhi elite, was being waylaid at the hands of streetside ruffians.

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 Rangoon after a show trial, where he stayed in confinement until his death in 1862. Because of his equivocal attitude to the uprising, his influence soon dissipated from Indian life. A move that had sought out to end the British Raj in India, ironically gave them the means to strengthen their presence.

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.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. The original link is here.

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