The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002

Love in the time of John Company
Rajnish Wattas

White Mughals is more than just a poignant love story with a tragic ending. Its greater significance lies in painstakingly piecing together the larger picture of the cultural crossover that existed between the British and the Indians and of the mingling of hearts and passions of both races.

White Mughals: Love and betrayal in eighteenth century India
by William Dalrymple. Viking India. Rs 650. Pages: 501.

White Mughals: Love and betrayal in eighteenth century India"THE story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa, shows East and West are not irreconcilable and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again." This is essence of the tragic-tale of love in White Mughals.

It’s a bit like Lagaan in reverse. Here instead of the gori mem falling for the desi Bhuvan, it’s the gora sahib who falls for an Indian princess. And thus life imitates art.

William Dalrymple, the intrepid traveller, explorer and teller of exotic tales, is an Indophile at heart, and now history tells that he also has blood ties with India. If his previous books City of Djinns and In the Court of Fish-eyed Goddess captured the pulse and soul of India, with the classic travel writer’s eye for detail, wry humour and a warm empathy for his subject, this work of historic non-fiction will put the stamp of erudite scholarship on him.

And what fascinating serendipity. A chance visit to Hyderabad’s old Residency Building – now housing the Osmania University’s Women College – and the buried tale of tragic love of epic proportions was unearthed.

White Mughals tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick of the East India Company, the Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1798, who falls in love with Khair un-Nissa, the great niece of the Prime Minister. Though ostensibly his mission is to build political bridges with the Nizam, while his hidden agenda is to expand British territory, it is he who is vanquished by the bewitching beauty of Khair un-Nissa — ‘most excellent among women’. And for good reason. In a picture of Khair un-Nissa, dated 1806, reproduced in the book "she still looks, a little more than a child: a graceful, delicate shy creature with porcelain skin, an oval face and dark brown eyes". No wonder she steals the heart of the young Resident, who first sees her at a royal wedding from behind a curtain


Then the love story takes the course of a legendary ballad, with the hero overcoming many obstacles, including breaking off the heroine’s engagement to a local nobleman and facing stern reprimands and wrath of his ‘superiors’. But as true love knows no impediments, Kirkpatrick converts to Islam and marries his lady love. In this saga, Khair’s mother Sharaf un-Nissa Begum plays the Cupid, who for reasons not quite clear is rather keen on the alliance coming through.

But White Mughals is more than just a poignant love story with a tragic ending. Its greater significance lies in painstakingly piecing together the larger picture of the cultural crossover that existed between the British and the Indians and of the mingling of hearts and passions of both races. The East and the West did meet, "with their unexpected mingling and fusions, their hybridity and above all their efforts at promoting tolerance and understanding …"

The White Mughals, therefore, draws back the purdah that has so far veiled this Indo-British encounter, and counters the Kiplingesque East-and-West-shall-never-meet thesis. It was only post-1857 ‘mutiny’ that racial distinctions and British superiority were emphasised.

The book brings to life evocative pictures of harem politics, court intrigues and the social-political milieu of Hyderabad of yore, and also the workings of the John Company’s Machiavellian tactics. Flavours and fragrances of the city’s bazaars and of the zennanas of the nobles waft through the narrative.

The letters and chronicles unearthed by Dalrymple paint word pictures of the era. "The majority of Hindoo women are comparatively small, yet there is much voluptuousness… a fullness that delights the eye…. The new-mown hay is not sweeter than their breath..." wrote Gen William Stuart, a contemporary of Kirkpatrick, popularly called Pundit Stuart for his fascination for Indian culture and the beauty and sexuality of Indian women.

Describing the architecture of Hyderabad, Dalrymple writes, "The cosmopolitan mix in the bazaars was reflected in the architecture of the streets through which these crowds surged. While the bazaars and fortifications were entirely Indian in style, many structures looked for inspirations to the heart of Islamic world by-passing the experiments of Mughals in India… From atop his elephant Kirkpatrick could see what appeared to be fragments of Bukhra and Samarkand, melon-ribbed domes."

Descriptions of Kirkpatrick, who like many other British went completely native, adopting the native dress and social ways, are fascinating. "He smoked a hookah, wore Indian style mustachios and had his fingers dyed in henna. Moreover James had taken on the Eastern habit of belching appreciatively after meals…."

The colourful romance ends on a tragic note with Kirkpatrick deciding to send their white-skinned children to Britain and he himself dying alone in Calcutta on way to his homeland. "James had died among strangers… and far from everyone he loved… he was laid in the muddy monsoon ground. In place of tears, there was a cold military salute." And finally Khair, too, died alone on September 22, 1813, aged only 27, in Hyderabad.

Possessing an epic, historical sweep, this book explores a pre-Passage to India period and has all the ingredients of a Hollywood ‘David Lean magnum opus.’ No wonder rumours are abuzz about Shekhar Kapur showing keen interest in making a film based on the book.

While the great strength of the White Mughals is that it unveils a lesser-known aspect of British rule in India, Dalrymple’s tenaciousness in locating both primary and secondary sources – many of them coming his way by sheer luck – also needs to be applauded. Copious footnotes and references should delight any historian or scholar. However, his over zealousness in stuffing an overdose of information jars the narrative with too many sub-plots, parallel stories and many characters.

His prose is somewhat heavier than is usual for the genre of ‘faction’ – a fusion of facts and fiction — used in writing popular history. And this probably stems from his desire to lend gravitas to his thesis of East and West meeting.

The White Mughals once again reminds us that it often takes Whites to uncover the cultural treasures of India, while our own historians ignore such stories.