|The Affair of the Last Mughal:Mukund Padmanabhan reviews and interviews William Dalrymple on his ambitious new book on the last days of Mughal Delhi.
Unique perspective: Dalrymple attempts to make history interesting to the layman.
The last of the Great Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, found himself thrust — reluctantly and with some misgivings — into the position of the leader of the 1857 Uprising against the British. William Dalrymple’s book deals with the tragic end of the dynasty against the catastrophic backdrop of the fall of Mughal Delhi, brutalised by revengeful British troops that seemed bent not merely on recapturing a city but also apparently on destroying a civilisation.
IN a sense, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal picks up where his White Mughals leaves off. The Englishmen of the late 1700s and the early 1800s, who had affairs Indian bibis, adopted Indian customs and were sympathetic to Indian interests have vanished. By the 1850s, the dynamics of the colonial encounter — marked by assimilation and cultural exchange over several decades — have drastically changed. A new breed of Englishmen has arrived, fired by evangelical enthusiasm, convinced about its moral superiority and eager to shape the social and religious destiny of a heathen India.
It is in this climate that Padre Jennings, Delhi’s Chaplain, arrives in India and plans to rip up the false faiths of the country, “by force if necessary.” It is here that a weak and vulnerable Bahadur Shah Zafar presides over a Delhi court that is steeped in literary pursuits to sublimate its lack of political power. And it is here again, that the people of Delhi exist in an inherently unstable equilibrium with their British masters, living not only “in different mental worlds, but also in different time zones.”
It is a setting ripe for revolt and Dalrymple narrates the story of Delhi’s capture and fall with a rare humanity, a zest that is infectious, and in a prose that is handsome, sure-footed and flowing with breezy purpose. Few writers understand as well as Dalrymple that the function of history is not merely to inform but also to engage and entertain. Fewer still recognise that the illumination of historical truth often lies in seemingly unacademic pursuits such as breathing life into the central characters or examining how ordinary people related to the social and political events of their day.
It is for the professional historians to assess or react to his broad theories — for instance, that Delhi was central to the events of 1857, that the uprising in the city and the attempts to quell it had the character of a religious war, that the sepoys failed not so much because they lacked a military strategy but because their supply lines were cut off by the operation of tribal gangs in Delhi’s outskirts. For the rest of us, the book provides a fascinating account of the last days of Mughal Delhi, narrated from a perspective that is far from nationalist but in a way oddly and endearingly Indian.
It is a wonderfully told story that relies heavily on new and hitherto untranslated sources (a cache that includes the virtually unused Mutiny Papers that he located in Delhi’s National Archives), one that allows us to witness 1857 as it was experienced by a host of common people — kebabsellers, dancers, traders, sepoys and spies. At one level, the quirky little yarns that Dalyrmple spins about the fears, prejudices, troubles, desires and ambitions of these and others are interesting digressions. At another, these personal stories add up in some incalculable way to provide a picture of Mughal Delhi that is intimate and meaningful.
The bulk of the book deals with the uprising in Delhi and Bahadur Shah Zafar — after whom the book is named — appears more as a symbol rather than the central subject. For all his weaknesses, Zafar represents the tolerant and liberal face of Islam, a King who understood the importance of keeping Hindus and Muslims together, a poet whose court was populated with “some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history.” When the British defeat him and strip him of his kingship, they do more than just end the Mughal dynasty; they destroy a form of Indo-Islamic civilisation. In many ways, this splendid book is a stirring lament for this loss.
The Last Mughal, easily Dalrymple’s most ambitious work until now, uses a wealth of news material to provide a unique perspective on the events of 1857. Zafar was emperor at a time when the Mughal dynasty was in decline, an emperor only in name. But in Dalrymple’s account, he was “a symbol of Islamic civilisation at its most tolerant and pluralistic”, a poet and ghazal writer who patronised the arts and helped in the flowering of a great cultural renaissance. In crushing the Uprising in the manner they did, Dalrymple argues that the British did more than end a dynasty and destroy a city — they also swept away a “pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.” Dalrymple spoke from England where his book was launched recently. Extracts from a telephonic inteview:
How do you see The Last Mughal principally? As a history, biography, a lament for a lost civilisation, a rattling good yarn — or a bit of all of these?
A history. It’s certainly not a biography. Because I haven’t really dealt with the first 70 years of his (Bahadur Shah Zafar’s) life. What it is, I suppose, is a portrait of Delhi, the last days of Mughal Delhi… and its apocalyptic destruction by the British.
In your view the  Uprising was a little bit of everything — a mutiny, a war of Independence, a peasant revolt, all of that. But what is the single most important point of departure from the other histories of this period? Is it the fact that the Uprising was, in some way, a war of religion?
It was expressed unequivocally as a war of religion. But this is not to say there was no deeply held set of grievances. One could draw a parallel with contemporary Islamic insurgencies against the West. The things that give [Osama] Bin Laden support are concrete political grievances against American foreign policy in the Middle East. The support of Israel, the bases all over the region, interference in countries, propping up of puppet regimes and so forth. And this [protest] is also expressed in the same language [as a religious war]. The same was true of 1857. So to say that the Uprising was expressed in religious language is not to deny that there were secular, economic, political grievances.
Also, I am talking specifically about Delhi, which, in some ways, was a special case. It was different, for example, from Lucknow in important ways.
But if there is a new historical perspective in this book, wouldn’t this be it?
If you are asking me what is unique, I would say there are two things, which hopefully provide interesting new perspectives to 1857. The first is emphasising the centrality of Delhi. This has been an uncomfortable thing for many Indian nationalist historians of 1857. Because you have the spectacle of sepoys, 85 per cent of which were upper caste Hindus, going to ask a Muslim emperor to rule them again. This is not something that [V.D.] Savarkar, who coined the phrase First Indian War of Independence, would have taken much pleasure in, for example. He emphasises Mangal Pandey and raises him on a pedestal. Obviously, Pandey was a hero in many ways but he was fairly marginal.
The fact of the matter is at least 1,00,000 of the 1,67,000 sepoys who rose up went straight to Delhi and asked Zafar to lead them. This is worth pondering about. As I said, these people were 85 per cent upper caste Hindus. What does this say about India — the allegiances, the loyalties and so on? It paints the nature of Mughal rule in a very different light. There is a very real ambivalence in India about the idea of Mughal rule… The contradiction between what happened in 1992, a Hindu rising against a Mughal symbol [the Babri Masjid], and what happened in 1857, when upper caste Hindus went to put a Mughal back on the throne, is certainly worth exploring.
And the second thing?
It’s simply that in Delhi there are 20,000 primary sources of Urdu and Persian [material], which allows us to see the Uprising in quite incredible detail. I no more than skimmed the surface of that archive…
This is what you call the Mutiny papers?
It’s what the catalogue calls it. And these papers are of the chancery of the Red Fort, the records of the sepoy regiments, records of the Delhi courts of justice, the Delhi kotwal, the individual thanas… and they represent an unbelievably rich street-level archive, which has been almost unused.
It’s clear from the book that the Mutiny papers acquaint us with certain people through their petitions, tell you stories about their lives, provide material to spin some interesting yarns. How much do they contain that actually demand a fresh look at the events of 1857?
Well, if you look at the time when things are beginning to fall apart in Delhi, they provide one with very detailed evidence of why the Uprising failed. And the answer was they [the sepoys in Delhi] were all starving. It was a major logistical failure. It wasn’t because of the British siege of the city. It was because of the Gujar and the Mewati tribes on the outskirts who were lynching everyone coming into the city. So no food was coming in, there was no liberated area as such. The city was under siege only partially by the British, but largely by the people on the outskirts, who had their own agenda. In late July, there were about 1,00,000 sepoys in the city. By the time the city fell in September, there were probably fewer than 30,000 or 35,000 left. The rest had gone off because they were not being paid or fed.
At every stage, the papers provide enormous detail. All the petitions from the military regiments, the squabbles, details about British collaborators, agent provocateurs, the excellence of the British intelligence system, the failure of the Indian side to do anything [about this] — all of this.
A question about the portions on British barbarity. It’s not just the facts, but the tone of these bits that leads me to wonder — are you going to be accused of Britain-bashing?
I have already! Today’s Observer accuses me of that. It says that my tendency to bash the West mars an otherwise impeccable biography.(Laughs). We have evidence from both sides that almost every male in the city, armed or unarmed, sepoy or civilian, was regarded as a target. It is important at a time when people like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are trying to revive Empire as a respectable idea — particularly to hold up British Empire as a model of globalisation, as an engine of progress — to recognise our own faults and the dark side of Empire.
What happened in Delhi is shocking, a massacre. Far, far greater…
Yes. I think again there has been a tendency both on the part of the British historians and the nationalist historians not to emphasise the centrality of Delhi. Delhi was the principal theatre of action. Followed by Lucknow and Kanpur.
What about Zafar himself? You adopt an extremely sympathetic view. He has been conventionally portrayed as someone who couldn’t make up his mind, attempted to play both sides, was trapped…
I don’t think that’s fair. I think he is an under-rated character. But I don’t want to obscure his failings. He was a catalyst for a major cultural renaissance. But it’s hard to imagine anyone less well suited to lead the Uprising. I make no bones of the fact that his leadership was one of the principal failures. Had there been a younger leader, history might have been very different.
What could an 82-year old man do? He could hardly have led a cavalry charge at that age… I reject charges that I whitewash or glorify him.
At one level, your book is aimed at the general reader — it’s full of anecdotes, a great read and doesn’t presuppose any special knowledge of this period of history. But at another level, you are also addressing the historians. You draw attention to a wealth of new material, to the importance of looking at 1857 in a new light.
I believe they should not be seen as a contradiction. It says a great deal about writing of history in India today that that this is seen as a contradiction. I was trained as a historian in Cambridge. I don’t feel in any way that I am unqualified as a historian.
I wasn’t suggesting that at all…
No, no. But it is unusual for people in India to write history if they don’t have an academic job.
Certainly, the historians I grew up admiring and enjoying… my hero is the great medievalist Steven Runciman, who taught at Cambridge but left academia to write. He wrote this fabulous book called The Fall of Constantinople 1453, about the last days of Byzantium, which is the closest thing I have to a model for the way I constructed The Last Mughal. He is an example of what I would regard as a model for history writing. As one who writes beautiful prose, who pulls you into a story, but whose books are unimpeachably scholarly and break new ground at every level.
There are many ways of writing history. I don’t wish to denigrate the achievements of the many great Indian historians.
But I think it is true to say that they have ceased to write for the general public. They only write for each other. There are very few exceptions. There is a tendency to use scholarly jargon, which in my view obscures rather than illuminates. One result of this is the terrible situation of the wide prevalence of historical myth.
Over the last year, I must have received 20 or 30 e-mails saying that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple dating from 400 BC. There should not be a situation where the intelligent middle class believes this rubbish. And it seems to me that historians are failing in their duty if, alongside with their detailed specialist work, they do not provide accounts which engage, interest and teach people their own history.
Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Guardian review of the Last Mughal:
The Last Mughal on Amazon.co.uk:
William Dalrymple and Vidya Shah perform the Last Mughal:
William Dalrymple lectures on the affair of 1857:
The Last Mughal Amazon site:
The Last Mughal at Berkeley:
The Last Mughal in Googlebooks:
The Last Mughal- Wikipedia site:
William Dalrymple on the affair of Zafar Delhi:
William Dalrymple’s new account of the affair of 1857:
Ethan Casey reviews William Dalrymple’s Last Mughal: