Friday, September 09, 2011

White Mughals by William Dalrymple: Impressions

The last time I read a William Dalrymple tome, (The Last Mughal), Bahadur Shah Zafar stayed with me for many months. This time, though, the central characters Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Begum Khair Un Nissa may not have such a long memory life. Dalrymple, in his characteristic style, writes such detailed accounts of every historical figure he comes across in the love story of a white (and a) Mughal, that the reader often forgets whose story he is reading. The author seems to have a compulsive need of shoving every little piece of research down the reader's throat, as the tiresome number of lengthy footnotes will suggest.

That said, the information that one gathers from reading a Dalrymple book is phenomenal, and White Mughals is no exception. The first chapter is an exhaustive recce of the instances of cross fertilisation of cultures that took place between the Indians and her many colonisers before the 18th century. Throughout the rest of the book, a comprehensive view of the political, economical and social (cultural) aspects of the late 18th century India emerges, as the author painstakingly puts together facts long forgotten. As one trudges along the voluminous 500 pages in small print, one discovers the many nuances of a Hyderabadi nobleman's life and an East India Company officer's days. Interesting little details of the food, dress, climate, language, architechture and manners of the time are thrown into the narrative, to ensure the reader 'stays' with the plot.

The main story, though, is of the handsome Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a British resident at the court of Nizam Ali Khan of Hyderabad, with whom the beautiful teenaged noblewoman, Khair Un Nissa falls hopelessly in love. With help from her mother and grandmother, Khair Un Nissa seduces the colonel,  eventually marries him and has two children by him. The affair, however, causes great upheaval in the court and even threatens the delicate political balance maintained between the Nizam's dominion, the East Indian government, and to a certain extent, the Maratha kingdom as well. The effects of the scandal are so far reaching, that not one, but three full blown inquiries are conducted, putting Kirkpatrick's reputation and career at stake. The duo emerge from the storm, but their happiness is short-lived. Their children are sent away to England for education, Kirkpatrick dies at the young age of 41 due to ill health during an official trip, and Khair Un Nissa is left all alone, with many enemies to fend off.

Khair Un Nissa finds love again in the arms of her husband's assistant, Henry Russell, albeit for a short time. Russell ditches her for another woman, while Khair is in exile. Khair manages to return to Hyderabad after the death of her vengeful cousin, Mir Alam, but in the end dies of loneliness and a broken heart, aged just 27.

But the story isn't about just one tragic love affair. Dalrymple shows us glimpses of a world before Governer General Wellesley, a world before terrible racial prejudices set in, a world where love between a saheb and a bibi was possible.  



Swetha said...

True, The Last Mughal leaves a deeper impact than the one left by White Mughals. Innumerable footnotes make the reading process a little tiresome but a useful read nonetheless. Wonderful and up to the point review.

Mahima said...

I came across this while googling the book, and I am not surprised to find that for someone who dismisses the lengthy footnotes with such offhandedness, you did not even bother to process the information presented in the main sections, let alone the footnotes. James Achilles Kirkpatrick was a Major, not a colonel. It was his father, Col. James Kirkpatrick, who was known as the Handsome Colonel. The whole review after that becomes bunkum since you claim that Khair un Nissa "seduces the colonel". Next time perhaps you should exercise the grey cells a little more and actually try to read the text properly before whining about how detailed the book was. It's a historical narrative anyway. What do you expect, Twilight?

Urmi Chanda Vaz said...

Dear Mahima,

I can understand your outrage and it's pretty valid. I wrote this review four years ago when I was a 'casual' reader. A lot has changed since then. I cannot imagine dismissing footnotes today, now that I'm a student of history. Apologies for any errors, which I assure you were inadvertent. Let this amateurish review not bother you.

Mahima said...

Hi Urmi,

Thanks for such a patient reply. I'm sorry for sounding so harsh - my inner history nerd gets quite negative at the littlest slights. I am glad to hear though that you appreciate the footnotes and the added details more now. You have an interesting blog, by the way. I hope the Culture Express initiative is going well. Good luck with that!