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.