Saturday, November 30, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Begums and their sahibs
Khushwant Singh

TWO centuries ago liaisons and marriages between European adventurers and Indian women, mostly Muslim, were not uncommon. This was largely due to the fact that Europeans — Portuguese, Dutch, French and English — came to India in the prime of their youth. There were very few white women available and they were compelled to visit brothels or, like well-to-do Indians, maintain harems of Indian concubines or mistresses. They were not particularly concerned about the religious divide: if they wanted to marry Muslim women, they underwent nominal conversion to Islam; if they took on Hindu wives, they observed Hindu customs and gave up eating beef. Although these inter-racial marriages created problems with relatives on both sides, those were overcome or ignored.

Among the most celebrated liaisons followed by a secret marriage ending in painful separation was that of Begum Khair-un-Nissa, niece of the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, and a Scotsman, Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident at the court of the Nizam. The story of the romance has been written before but never as thoroughly researched and as well told as in William Dalrymple’s White Mughals: Love & Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India (Penguin Viking). I haven’t read anything as gripping since his earlier novel on Delhi, City of Djinns.

A policeman who is a poet too
November 23, 2002
The power of silence
November 16, 2002
Cultivating the art of conversation
November 9, 2002
Thus spake Sant Kabir
November 2, 2002
What is the strongest thing on earth?
October 26, 2002
Have you seen God?
October 19, 2002
Mocking at one’s own people
October 12, 2002
Keeping Urdu alive
October 5, 2002
How a rapist should be punished
September 28, 2002
Historical research: Punjabi style
September 14, 2002

Dalrymple has used the Khair-un-Nissa-Kirkpatrick romance and tragedy to explore the entire gamut of Euro-Indian personal relationships. Early in the novel he spells out his theme: "India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them." The process of assimilation created new hybrids of half-castes known as "tropos" or "Anglo-Indians". Salman Rushdie describes it as chutnification. Thus James Kirkpatrick, though a Colonel in the British army, wore Mughal-style dresses at home, smoked a hookah, chewed betelnut, enjoyed nautch parties, maintained a small harem in his zenankhana, spoke Hindustani and Persian as fluently as English. Khair-un-Nissa was a Sayyed of Persian descent, a Shia belonging to Hyderabad’s aristocracy. Though kept in strict purdah, she saw the handsome Scotsman from behind the screen at nautch parties and riding past her haveli. She was engaged to a cousin but this did not prevent her from falling madly in love with the sahib. If he could not get to her, she was determined to get to him. The fact that she was only 14, and the man she set her heart upon was in his thirties did not deter her. She got her mother to take her along to the British Residency and there while her mother was in the zenana, she contrived to be with Kirkpatrick, pleaded with him to marry her or else, she warned, she would take poison. Kirkpatrick proceeded to deflower her. She was uncommonly beautiful and was a veritable Lolita of Mughal times. She repeated her visits and became pregnant. The affair got known and became the talk of the city. The scandal was reported to the Governor-General in Calcutta. By now Kirkpatrick was also in love with Khair-un-Nissa. When she was seven months pregnant, he agreed to marry her. A nikah required his conversion to Islam. Khair-un-Nissa bore him a son and a daughter, both given Muslim and Christian names.

Kirkpatrick’s fortunes went down a deep decline with Lord Wellesley’s appointment as Governor-General of British possessions in India. He was an Imperialist determined to expel the French, destroy Tipu Sultan, cut the Marathas to size and reduce the Nizam to subservience. He strongly disapproved British-Indian liaisons. Though he was no paragon of virtue himself — he impregnated a married white woman on his way to Calcutta — and complained to his wife who refused to join him. "I assure you that this climate excites one sexually most terribly." What he did about it is not recorded but he summoned Kirkpatrick to Calcutta to be reprimanded and dismissed.

Kirkpatrick, sick and broken-hearted, packed off his children to England and went to Calcutta as summoned. He died on October 15, 1805. He was only 41 years old. Khair-un-Nissa was only 19. The widow made her way to Calcutta to shed tears on her late husband’s grave. Her chief comforter was Henry Russel, appointed to take Kirkpatrick’s office in Hyderabad. They travelled back together and on their homeward journey became lovers. At Masulipatnam, Khair-un-Nissa got the order that she was not to enter the Nizam’s territories. Russel proceeded to Hyderabad without her. On a visit to Madras, he fell for a half-Portuguese beauty and married her. Ultimately, the ban was lifted and Khair-un-Nissa returned to Hyderabad.She died on September 22, 1813. She was only 27.

Dalrymple packs in a lot of incidental information while relating the tragic life of Khair-un-Nissa Begum. At the time no potatoes or peas were grown in the Deccan; they had to be got from Calcutta. Begum Baigin, a highly over-rated preparation of aubergines that became a greatly relished dish, was sent by the Nizam regularly to Kirkpatrick. While Muslim ladies had little hesitation in bedding white men, when it came to marriage they insisted their men first converted to Islam. Concubines had a comparatively easier life. General Ochtelny who had eleven in his harem allowed them to practise their faiths. One who had been a prostitute built a mosque in Delhi, which is still known as Rundi ki Masjid. One practice of which I was wholly unaware was making male children suck the breasts of their infant sisters; so that brothers and sisters would love each other for the rest of their lives. Apparently Emperor Akbar made his son Jehangir do this bizarre ritual. There is much to read and enjoy in Dalrymple’s latest offering.

Okra King of California

Harbhajan Singh Samra with a farming background and an MA degree in economics migrated to California and decided to try his luck producing vegetables for the sizeable Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities settled there. Luck favoured him. He started with Indian bhindi (okra) in 1991. It was an instant success. He added baigan (aubergine), tinda, gaver, methi, palval and moolee (long white radish). Today his 200-acre farm in Indio (California) has an annual turnover of $ 12 million. Starting from scratch 11 years ago, he is a millionaire, and known as the Okra King of California.

It was not a windfall; Samra tested different soils, had many setbacks before he was able to produce high-quality vegetables of Indian origin. He now exports his produce to Canada and European countries, where there are Asian communities. He is not resting on his laurels and enjoying his well-earned opulence; he is on to producing Indian fruit on California soil. Next year he plans to plant different varieties of Indian mangoes, ber (zizyphus), jamun and jimikand. He will have to wait a few years before they yield fruit. He can afford to wait and hopefully become a billionaire. He is a family man and lives with his Indian wife and seven-year-old son.

Birthday gift

On his wife’s birthday, a man had no money to buy her a gift. But he hit upon a novel idea. He gifted her a cheque, writing "a hundred kisses" in the blank space marked for the amount to be mentioned. In the evening when he returned from his office, his wife exclaimed, "Thanks for the cheque, darling. I got it cashed from the bank’s manager."

(Contributed by Roshni Johar, Shimla)