Readers Write In #500: Book Review: White Mughals by William Dalrymple

Posted on October 7, 2022


Jeeva P

I had planned to read historian William Dalrymple for quite a long time. I had read one of his long essays on The Guardian and was very much impressed with his compelling prose and vivid style of narration some years back. I had the chance to borrow a book last month titled White Mughals by Dalrympledespitenot being drawn towards its theme- a Hyderabadi noblewoman drawn romantically to a British Resident braving all cultural and political odds. The blurb of the book indicated something like a fairy-tale romance and since much of the story was supposed to be true, I did not get much interest to pick and read it. Had it been a work of fiction I could have relied on the imagination of the author to keep me hooked to the narrative with his supposed ‘flights of fancy’ just like I was in love with Marquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera. This was purportedly a real tale and right from my childhood I wasn’t a big fan of real-time love stories- I didn’t like even the much -acclaimed Prithviraj-Parvathy Malayalam blockbuster- Ennu Ninte Moideen.

But I didn’t have a choice since I didn’t have any other book that I hadn’t read in my shelf. So I started this one but as I moved across the pages, there was nothing but the vividness of the prose and the quality of Dalrymple’s vocabulary that kept me interested. As people who have had a cultivated habit of reading would testify, the quality of the language alone would suffice for a reader to keep going with the book no matter how dreary the content actually is. Here was a tale that apparently was a love story between a fourteen-year-old Hyderabadi noblewoman named Khair-un Nissa who is smitten by a much older British official named James Kirkpatrick. James actually is a Resident appointed by the East India Company to oversee the affairs of the Court of Hyderabad’s Nizam and Khair is a direct descendant of that illustrious Mughal family that ruled over a considerable portion of South India. Needless to say, Khair’s family is one of inveterate orthodoxy and no male other than the husband of a woman can directly look at her face to converse with her regardless of the gravity of the situation. Women of such aristocratic origins had to stand behind a veil to converse even with those they were very much acquainted with and in a time when today’s liberal values were just beginning to sprout on the margins of an 18th century feudal Indian society, Dalrymple writes with so much awe and shock about this particular inter-racial affair that had the potential to damage the politics of south India immensely.

Much of the book has been written based either on hearsay or on the letters of James to his brother William or on the written testimonies of the relatives of the protagonists. Dalrymple as he progresses with the narrative manages to paint a stark picture of India that had very little connection to the one that we see today. The story unwittingly disturbed me on the following count- on how very little say women or girls of teenage had with respect to the choice of their life partners, especially how easily and guiltlessly teenage girls were married to men almost twice or thrice their age and even subjected to sexual subordination. In today’s neoliberal capitalist era where women have begun to question men and the society on aspects of their choices and freedoms, what was happening in the 18th century to little girls and women kept me appalled and intrigued. Much of Khair’s initial fascination for James is portrayed to be politically motivated by the women of her family to gain some control over the politics of the Company- Nizam relationship but as the story deepens, surprisingly Khair really is shown to be asserting herself. She develops a real likingfor the British Resident and James writes in detail about a night when she actually managed to seduce him physically during a moment of passion. She soon becomes pregnant with the child of James who in fact appears to be a man of great integrity not only with respect to politics but also in matters of family and relationships. In other words, even though the seeds of Khair’s attachment to James were sowed by the women of the Nizam’s family to gain access to the forbidden walls of Raj-Nizam politics, it was not a relationship that did not have the full and conscious approval of the younger female partner. Khair understands that James is not someone who would abandon her and one of the reasons why she is drawn towards him is another big surprise that the book manages to impress us with.

James Kirkpatrick like many other officials of the East India Company of the 18th Century was neither an Anglophile nor someone who had a very condescending view of the ‘lowly’ foreign country that he was supposed to be dealing with. Many officials who had left their home country had voluntarily chosen to build bridgeswith Indian culture and customs and Dalrymple mentions the habits and activities of a number of British officials who had developed a great liking and love for the people and culture of India. It is this theme of British officials of high rank and honour getting attracted to Indian culture and heritage that translates into the book’s title – The White Mughals and James Kirkpatrick is portrayed as someone who wore Indian costumes all the time and had the habit of watching Indian dances and enjoying local songs and food. Many officials of this era started considering themselves as Indians and, had Indo-British politics not taken a few unsavoury deviations as it did in the later part of the 18th and the 19th centuries, we could have witnessed the evolution of something rare and precious- an altogether new culture that could have been titled Anglo-Indian syncretism, akin to how Mughals hailing from Persia were successfully ableto foster something calledthe latter-day Indo-Persian culture that is very much part of our social fabric today.

However, despite interest from Khair’s side to begin a relationship with the British Resident and despite the catholicity of some of James’s colleagues to allow and encourage a cross-cultural relationship, the love story is not without its share of villains and adversarial circumstances. The high command of the East India Company which is directly driven by vested interests located in London is not in favour of romantic or marital relationships happening between aristocratic Indians and the English on account of purely political reasons. They are very apprehensive of how suspicious Indian rulers can be with respect to foreigners who were often considered as ill-bred or out-caste and how relationships forged under such spurious circumstances can breach rules of religion, something that the Indian aristocracy and the ruling classes considered primal, holy and inviolable. The Company in its early days in India was not ready to alienate Indian princes or the local rulers on such grounds which might have led to permanent fissures in their relationship with them, ultimately damaging the Company’s paramount commercial and political interests.

As a result, pressure keeps mounting from the top for James as soon as the relationship somehow comes into the open but James rises to the occasion concealingdeftly crucial details of his marriage to Khair from the top officials of the Company. He also manages to divert and impress the top brass in Calcutta every now and then by concluding some new treaties and agreements with the Nizam that sanction the Company’s commercial and political expansion into the South. But as days pass, Khair’s new and happy life with James at his Residence with two little children takes an unsavoury detour. The children as soon as they reach the age of five are sent to England for education, in keeping with the tradition of the English, and all links of them with their mother are completely severed by the jealous Kirkpatrick family in London. Soon James travels to Bengal on a political mission with declining health and Khair’s almost decade-old life with her British husband quickly comes to an end. James dies in his late forties due to some unknown disease and Khair is left with all but herself. The children grow up in London as English citizens and completely forget their parents, especially their young Muslim mother.

If I remember correctly, Khair too dies at the age of twenty-seven without hearing a word from her children and the relationship between the families is re-established only after her grand-children grow up and meet the still miraculously hale and healthy mother of Khair-un Nissa. Another fascinating aspect that the book managed to touch upon was how natural it was for people to die in their twenties and thirties even without exposure to war or hunger or a natural calamity. The state of medical diagnosis and healthcarewastoo primitive and under-developed thenwhich was how it was for centuries together and that explains why many Indians did not think twice about having children in two-digit numbers and also the rationale behind why my grandfather cared very little about impregnating my grandmother almost fourteen times! As Jeyamohan mentions in one of his essays, currently we are actually living in the finest of finest times, a rare, tiny period in the whole of millenia-old global history and civilization where wars, famine, disease and poverty are at an all-time low and average life-expectancy is easily above forty years of age around the globe no matter how weaka particular country is economically and politically.

Dalrymple also mentions in passing that this early batch of English officials who were ready to acclimatize themselves to India’s culture and identity was soon unfortunately replaced by a class of consciously racist and unconscionably rapacious Company officials who were trained to look at the whole of the Indian subcontinent only as a treasure-trove of natural and cheap human resources. They had absolutely no eye for the beauty of the country and the uniqueness of its identity and open culture. They tended to forget altogether the original aims of the founding of their company – to simply trade and enrich the shareholders commercially without harming the local populace and the rulers in any particularly way. India, Dalrymple indicates, just like Khair was ready to welcome and ingratiate herself with the initially ‘harmless’ outsider only to be exploited and pillaged and abandoned by him within a short span of time in her long and illustrious millennia-old history, ending up suffering deep and unmissable scars that continue to fester her even today.