The Book of Bygone Begums
January 1, 2012 § 2 Comments
The time: 1785 to 1810. The place: Hyderabad, city of grand palaces, soaring minarets, fluttering standards, spice and diamond markets, rolling hills and scenic lakes. It is the premier city of South India and capital of the fabulously rich Nizam-ul-Mulk, Viceroy of the Mughal Emperor and plenipotentiary over much of the Deccan peninsula. He is advised by his cunning Prime Minister, Aristu Jah, and his vast dominions border on those of the warlike Maratha Confederacy to the North, whose leader, the boy Peshwa Madhav Rao II, is a figurehead under the iron thumb of the shrewd Nana Fadnavis. The French and the English East India Companies jockey frantically for power and prestige (but mainly, for profits) with these kingdoms. They each have Residents in place at both courts, and have regiments augmenting both armies. The wily Tipu Sultan, sworn enemy of the English, rules the state of Mysore to the south of the Nizam’s kingdom, and is closely aligned with the French. The Nizam fights the Marathas with French assistance; the English fight Tipu with the Nizam’s assistance. The English regiments of the Nizam overpower his French regiments. The French regiments in the Peshwa army fight under the Bourbon flag; those in the Nizam’s army fight under the banner of the Republic. The English Governor-General does not see eye-to-eye with his own Residents; the Residents coexist uneasily with their own military commanders. In Hyderabad, Aristu Jah is locked in a power struggle with his one-time assistant, Mir Alam; Daulat Rao Scindia vies likewise with Nana Fadnavis for control of the Pune court. Each group has spies in every other camp; secret messages in cipher fly back and forth, reporting feverishly on every development. Every party plots darkly, uses threats, bribes, blackmail, poison and honey traps to further its objectives. In the background, the blind Shah Alam sits on the crumbling Mughal throne of Delhi, which city is effectively what remains of his empire as his regional satraps proclaim their independence; armed men run riot across the land with fire and sword. From their bases in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the English have commenced oozing into this political abyss from all directions, and it is a matter of time before all of India is in their grasp. Further afield, the Dutch, the Spanish and the Ottomans are in decline; France and Britain are locked in a dire struggle across four continents; America is independent; General Napoleon has swept to victory in Egypt and is at the very gates of the Red Sea, his eyes firmly set on England’s Indian possessions.
At this crucial juncture, the English Resident at Hyderabad falls head over heels in love with the very aristocratic, very beautiful, very young, very orthodox Shia Muslim and therefore very, very forbidden Khairunnisa, throwing two worlds into political turmoil and putting the closest British alliance in India, and thus their very existence on the subcontinent, in jeopardy. Naturally, five hundred pages later, it all ends tragically for the English beau and his bride, and the orphaned children of the unfortunate union are dragged away across half the world to be brought up in regency England, never again to set eyes on the land of their birth.
This is, and isn’t, the story of the book under review. Underlying the hype and histrionics is a tale that, in many ways, is even more fascinating than that of star-crossed love. It is one of the coming together and commingling of two cultures; of stiff-upper-lipped pukkah sahibs ‘going native’, wearing Indian clothes, smoking hookahs, speaking fluent Persian and Hindustani, growing luxuriant mustaches, making Indian friends, appreciating mushairas and nautch, having Indian concubines and even wives, fathering half-Indian children, converting to Islam or Hinduism, blending in as all invading cultures had before them… as Dalrymple points out, what is surprising is not that this happened (according to the book, one in three Englishmen in 18th century India were involved with one or more Indian women) but that it wasn’t more widespread, and that it isn’t talked about very much: “from the wider perspective of world history, what is much odder and much more inexplicable is the tendency of the late 19th century British to travel to, and rule over, nearly a quarter of the globe, and yet remain resolutely untouched by virtually all the cultures with which they came into contact.”
Dalrymple’s real story plots the course of the changing English attitudes towards their colonial subjects between the 18th and the 19th centuries. From the time of the Governor Generalship of Lord Wellesley, “India was no longer a place to embrace and to be transformed by; instead it was a place to conquer and transform.” Hobnobbing with natives, living lives in a way that was deemed too similar to theirs, counting natives as friends and definitely as family – none of this was acceptable behavior any longer, and Anglo-Indians with even a spot of non-white blood were severely disadvantaged in English circles. Mixed ancestry wasn’t exactly welcomed in Indian circles either. There is also the matter of social class: casual liaisons with native women of a lower class did not raise eyebrows, but neither side considered it cricket for an English officer to have an affair with a lady of standing.
White Mughals is more than a portrait, it is a palimpset. Superimposed on these two storylines is yet another one – the overarching one of life in general in fin de siecle Hyderabad between the Mughal Empire and the British Raj. Piecing together details from copious volumes of personal and official correspondence of European travellers, travelogues and diaries, Ghulam Hussain Khan’s Gulzar-e-Asafiya, Mir Abdul Lateef Shushtari’s Tuhfat-al-alam, and dozens of other sources, Dalrymple is at his best when he describes places as they must have looked in those days. Shushtari, an aristocratic Irani who traveled to India at the time, wrote a not too flattering account of the Nizam’s kingdom: “To survive in Hyderabad you need four things: plenty of gold, endless hypocrisy, boundless envy and the ability to put up with parvenu idol-worshippers who undermine governments and overthrow old families.” (So, not a lot has changed in all these years). But Dalrymple clearly has a much higher opinion. Lovingly, and backed by precise research, he recreates the Hyderabad of the festivities and ceremonies during the Muharram holidays, the Hyderabad of the narrow inner gullies, the water fountains and private mangrove parks with peacocks and deer, the flourishing grand bazaar outside the Char Minar. He also describes Calcutta, Madras and Masulipatnam, but with less affection. People with any connection whatsoever to the old city of Hyderabad will find it eminently worth their while to read this book, but others have good reason to read it as well.
“Diaries,” says Dalrymple, ” and especially travel diaries, often reveal as much about the writer as the place of person written about.” This is equally true of histories and historians. White Mughals tells us quite a bit about Dalrymple, who, like his protagonist, has decided to devote a significant portion of his life in India. Based on the evidence, it is hard for me not to like him or to agree with his warmly liberal politics.
“At a time when respectable academics talk of a Clash of Civilizations and when East and West, Islam and Christianity, appear to be engaged in another major confrontation,” writes Dalrymple, and this is in 2002, mind, “this unlikely group of expatriates provides a timely reminder that it is indeed very possible – and has always been possible – to reconcile the two worlds.”
In addition to being a love story, a political thriller, an espionage drama and a slice-of-historical-life vignette, the White Mughals is a parable for our times, and a paean to racial and religious reconciliation.
Tagged: William Dalrymple