28 September 2007

No Jingo, No Jargon


The Last Mughal
By William Dalrymple
Viking/Penguin
Pages 608 (with 16pp col and 8pp b/w insert)
Rs 695

William Dalrymple, the celebrated travel writer-turned-historian, author of books like City of Djinns (perhaps one of the finest books ever written on Delhi) and White Mughals (a myth-breaking history of 18th century India’s golden age of multiculturalism), finds many takers when he says Indian historians write to make history arcane and intimidating rather than relevant and approachable.

The Last Mughal, Dalrymple’s much-awaited history of ‘the Uprising’ of 1857 (what we know as the Sepoy Mutiny), seems like a new gauntlet thrown to his Indian counterparts. What makes this account of an emotive and contentious (to say the least) chapter in Indian history unique is that it is based largely on previously unused archival material that he himself discovered. The punch line is that the material is housed in the National Museum, located bang in the middle of Delhi, where it has been ignored by a generation of Indian historians of all affiliations, who tend to write jingoistic and jargon-riddled accounts of the event based on the very point of view they wish to debunk – the British records.

Dalrymple can’t help gloating and rubbing it in. He calls the cache ‘the kind of archive every historian dreams of discovering,’ about which he learnt as he was ‘pottering about the Hyderabad Residency records’ while writing White Mughals.

Among other material, he came across a 500-page catalogue containing ‘one-line descriptions of around 20,000 documents from the Sikh Sepoy accounts, from the Red Fort Chancery, from the Kotwal, from the Thana, and all of Delhi.’ He gleefully adds, ‘It’s the most spectacular account. Just four months, of one city, at the time of complete crisis, just before the whole city is wiped clean.’ Thus began The Last Mughal.

Written in elegant, plain English and paced adroitly like a well-spun airport thriller, in The Last Mughal the world of White Mughals is already drawing to an end, though the apocalyptic events are still far off. By 1852 the interracial bonhomie is replaced by a ‘virtual apartheid’ where children of mixed race have become butts of scorn and amusement, and instances of Indian wives finding mention in their white husbands’ wills have become rarer.

Dalrymple attributes this to the growing British intolerance quickened by the evangelising missionaries, and also to the Civil Service reforms of 1856, which ensured that the outpost-bound recruits were usually in their mid-twenties, and married. This soon began to upset the delicate equation the two races had entered, and even unleashed an expected backlash from the Wahabi elements and the Ulamas.

All of which perhaps created an environment conducive to the spread of rumours such as those about the new Enfield rifles, with their pork- or beef-laced cartridges, being issued to Company sepoys as part of a British conspiracy to wean them off their religions.

Soon, the Meerut sepoys mutinied. After massacring the European population there, they marched to Delhi to ask the Badshah of Hindustan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to lead them against the firangis.

The Ganges water-drinking Zafar is both incidental and central to the book. In his fall is reflected not just the fall of the city or a dynasty, but a whole way of life. Zafar is, for Dalrymple, the symbol – instigator, product and practitioner-guardian – of a syncretic culture that is still the essence of India.

Ironically, it was Zafar himself who also hastened, or even caused, the fall of Delhi. Always fickle-minded and obsessed with his gardens and poetry, he was quickly coerced into being party to the Uprising after the rebel sepoys gatecrashed into the Red Fort and made themselves at home in the Diwan-e-Khas, helping themselves to fruits from his gardens and supplies from the palace.

Dalrymple brings into play the new archival material that consists of petitions from the ordinary citizens of Delhi, complaining against the lawlessness and highhandedness of the purabiyas or tilangas, as the sepoys were known. The emergent narrative painstakingly recreates the horrors of the four months the besieged city witnessed. The mostly Hindu upper-cast sepoys began a killing spree, butchering every white man, woman and child they could find in Delhi. Equally chilling is the final razing of the city and the large scale, systematic massacre of Indian men (women and children were mercifully spared) by the British forces arriving tardily from Meerut and Simla.

Dalrymple adds to the vividness and immediacy of the narrative by locating the action in places that still exist today, and familiarising the reader with some of the perpetrators. This humanising of evil does show up only part of the complexity of the Uprising. The picture becomes more confusing as the constitution of the different armies becomes clear: One reads about Muslim Pathans, Sikhs and Gurkhas fighting alongside the British against Hindu and Muslim rebels, who in turn had quite a few Englishmen on their side. Kith and kin were pitched against each other: Padre Rotton, who proclaimed the British to be God’s chosen race, had, among many Anglo-Indian cousins fighting for the rebel cause, one who was white but didn’t speak a word of English.

But to show us the larger picture of what happened in other spots of rebellion across India, in those months of mayhem between May and September of 1857, seems hardly to concern Dalrymple. His focus is Delhi, and there are few signs of an awakened political consciousness amongst the rebels there. The British were quick to realise the political dividends of the Uprising, and were quick to kill any heirs of the line of Timur.

Dalrymple succeeds brilliantly in conveying the sense of irreplaceable loss of a nuanced and a self-assured culture – the kind that any civilisation would have been proud to boast of as its zenith. If City of Djinns was Dalrymple’s first proclamation of his love for his mistress, the city of Delhi, in The Last Mughal he has uncovered the hidden sadness, the very secret of her allure.

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