Author: William Dalrymple
Publishers: Penguin Viking
Published In: 2006
Price: Rs 695
BY Sandhya Iyer
Last glow of light
Being fairly intrigued by Mughal history, Dalrymple has always been one author whose books I’ve wanted to read. I missed out on his White Mughals but got an opportunity to read The Last Mughal and must say, it turned out to be every bit the rich, luxuriant and fascinating experience I imagined it to be.
I must confess here that I have no problems with a Westerner writing about Indian history --- I say it because this seems to be everyone's pet peeve against Dalrymple-Now, as long as the author approaches his subject with honesty and doesn't adopt a patronizing tone, as the likes of V. S Naipaul, E M Forster so often do, it's really fine by me. And as I see it, this author is not really guilty of any of the above charges.
Having read the book, I will say that this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, informative and entertaining works on Mughal history. No other book probably has approached the 1857 revolt and the disastrous impact it had on a culturally thriving Delhi, the way Dalrymple has in The Last Mughal.
Besides the fact that it extensively covers and nostalgically looks back on the wonderful city that Delhi was in the 1850s and 60s under the rule of its benign, tolerant and pluralistic Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, it gives in-depth sketches of the prevailing British officers of the time. Importantly, it directs our attention to several of our presend-day issues and attitudes, a direct result of our legacy.
That there's a wealth of historical information to be derived out of this book is a given, but truly astonishing is also Dalrymple's ability to weave in so many cobwebs of events and characters with such clarity.
Not to add, his meticulous, hypnotic attention to detail, with some of the passages sparkling like pure gems -----much like the Mughal arts he describes in his book.
The story begins in the early 1850s, a time when Delhi's political fortunes had started to plummet. The Britishers were fast spreading their tentacles and tightening their hold over the Mughals. The bonhomie that existed between the Bitishers and Muslims in the city was starting to wane and Victoria's men were under no obligation to please the Emperor any more. In fact, the king, Zafar Bahadur was rendered powerless now.
Yet, for all its political decline, "the city's reputation as a centre of learning, culture and spirituality had rarely been higher".
The peace gets disrupted when rebel sepoys from Meerut (mainly) and some other regiments request Zafar to support them in their fight against the Britishers. As history tells us and the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey showed, there was discontent brewing among sepoys of North-west provinces. Dalrymple records this in detail and abundantly agrees that Victorian Evangelicals had indeed been speeding up their plans to convert Hindus and Muslims.
While the sepoys were disgruntled about their low salaries among many other things, it was the issue of religion that really sparked off the revolt.
Now, coming to a point I've always reiterated ---- Mangal Pandey was no icon of the 1857 revolt and the book not only succinctly states that, it adequately proves it.
"For a century, this fact has been partially obscured by nationalist historians for whom the idea of Hindu sepoys flocking to Delhi to revive the Mughal Empire was more or less anathema"
"Since the time of V. D Savarkar's book, The Indian War Of Independence 1857, the March outbreak in Barrackpore has been seen as the crucial event of the Mutiny and Mangal Pandey Pandey its central icon. This is a position that was further cemented by the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey. Yet, in many ways Pandey was almost irrelevant to the outbreak, which took place two months later in Meerut in May"
"If Mangal Pandey was the sepoy's inspiration, they certainly did not articulate it, nor did they rush towards Barrackpore or Calcutta."
Zafar, already in his 80s, clearly had no real say in whether to support the sepoys against the Britishers or not. But in the end, he lend his tacit support to the rebels and what followed was one of the bloodiest massacres witnessed in Delhi, with Englishmen being pulled out of their homes and killed mercilessly by the sepoys and jehadis.
Retribution follows and the Britishers swear to take revenge and destroy everything the city stands for.
At least two chapters of the book describe in minute detail the progression of the war --- For a long time, the sepoys succeed in restricting the Britishers to a Ridge. The fact that the sepoys outnumbered the British force by a great number was also putting pressure on the Englishmen. But going by Dalrymple's version of the war, the sepoys were courageous, but they made several tactical errors. The Britishers soon get the better of them and invaded the city again.
The sepoys, in a desperate bid, ask Zafar to lead them in a final assault. Left with no choice, the king agrees but is soon fraught with a sense of fear, and retreats. “Zafar’s catastrophic failure of nerve was the decisive moment that marked the beginning of the end of the rebellion,” writes the author.
What follows is one of the most vengeful attacks by the Britishers on the jehadis and locals. Every man is shot dead and the women and children are forced to leave the city. Dalrymple infuses several ‘real-life conversations’ made by Englishmen in the narrative by way of letters they wrote to their wives, father to a daughter etc.. describing the turn of events throughout the book.
One such letter says about Delhi, “The town now presents an awful spectacle”
The city that was at the height of its cultural vitality, with arts, literature and poets such as Ghalib and Zauq, was in perfect shambles now.
The book also acquaints us with how senior British officers had almost made up their minds to demolish every standing edifice in the city, including architectural wonders like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid but were prevented by an influential officer in the nick of time.
However, this still was an event, which changed destinies forever.
For one, Mughal arts “never really regained their full vitality and artistic prestige even after independence”
More significantly, as the author points out, after the revolt, “The Indian Muslim became almost a subhuman creature for the British, tagged along Irish Catholics or the ‘Wandering Jew’”
Correspondingly and gravely, “this profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslims and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic”
Quite rightly, the seeds of suspicion that got sowed then, came to show its ugly face with the 1947 Hindu-Muslim Partition.
But the book’s most decisive statement is about how from pre 1857 and after to even today, Islamic Fundamentalism and Western imperialism have closely, and dangerously intertwined.
“Again Western countries blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked –as they interpret it-by mindless fanatics.”
No need to mention 9/11, is there? Most certainly, there's an urgent need to learn from history and not repeat it.