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White Mughals

When even hard-nosed critics say William Dalrymple has surpassed himself with his latest book about India

books Updated: May 14, 2007 17:36 IST
Suman Tarafdar
Suman Tarafdar
Hindustan Times

White Mughals
Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India

William Dalrymple
New Delhi, 2002
Price: Rs 650
Pages: 580

That William Dalrymple’s books are exhaustively researched, well-documented, excellent reads is a given. So when even hard-nosed critics say he has surpassed himself with his latest book about India, looking-forward-to grabbing a copy of White Mughals is the least fans of his writing could do. And he doesn’t disappoint.

The book is at a more ambitious scale than Dalrymple’s earlier writings. By his own admission, it took him about five years to finish. Though ostensibly about the love shared by an East India Company official and a young begum at Hyderabad at the end of the eighteenth century, the book is also a document against the popular notion of ‘clash of cultures’.

As the author has pointed out in numerous interviews, the book started off as a rediscovery of the historical intermingling of the oriental and occidental, the happy marriages of cultures that occurred in the period spanned by pre-Victorian England and the twilight phase of the Mughals. And in numerous instances this resulted in inter-racial, inter-religion alliances, some recognised, many happy, some of equal footing among the two principles involved, some with long term effects of their descendants, others that were passing pleasures…

As this so clearly contradicted the separation of the East and West theory popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, records of this phase were often deliberately tampered with, sometimes totally rubbed out of histories of the Victorian period.

However the period existed, as is borne out by the fact that one in three of all Bengal wills of the time mention Indian wives as beneficiaries. Though this situation would drastically change by the middle of nineteenth century, that this phase also existed cannot be denied.

White Mughals is a tale of one such relationship, albeit a remarkable one, with all the makings of a tragic love story set in Nizam’s Hyderabad at the turn of the nineteenth century. Despite the political machinations around them, despite the considerable barriers of religion, language and social divides, the love of James Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa seems to have been one of mutual love and equality.

But theirs is not the only example of White Mughals in the book. Dalrymple describes many such examples, in fair detail. Remarkably well researched, the book is part of a fairly new genre of writing - narrative history. Though Khair may be the central character of the book, her voice is always heard second hand, as all traces of her writing were destroyed by descendants of James’s family in the 1900s. Instead, what we have is a painstaking reconstruction, which includes reading into subtexts, of the people and the times.

Beware, this is may be an engrossing read, but not fast. The footnotes and endnotes, exhaustive and informative in themselves, can slow down reading considerably. The 500-odd pages of text are peopled with kings and courtiers, governors, soldiers, courtesans, glimpses of harem life, Sufis, the life in Residencies, journeys, wars, customs, dresses, architecture - all richly described.

The book ends with almost a plea for co-existence, for an adaptation of the spirit of ‘tolerance and understanding’ so well embodied by these White Mughals, an example the current polarised world would be well advised to follow.

First Published: Dec 05, 2002 16:00 IST