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