Home > Magazine > Features > Books:The Last Mughal


Books:The Last Mughal

June 2007
Books:The Last Mughal


by William Dalrymple. Alfred Knopf, March 2007.

Hardcover, 560 pages. $19.80.

William Dalrymple's latest book, The

Last Mughal, awarded the prestigious

2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History

and Biography, is a significant contribution

to understanding the roots of the current

war in Iraq, and the clash between Western

countries, particularly the United States, and

al Qaeda and the Taliban. Dalrymple says that

the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and

Western imperialism have often been closely,

and dangerously intertwined. The quick narrative

pace of this well-researched book of

nearly 500 pages makes it less dry history and

more of a vivid human story.

Dalrymple portrays a narrow slice of

Indian history, the 1857 Indian uprising

against the British. By 1857, the British had

conquered almost the entire subcontinent,

not with armies but by annexing territories

and legal chicanery. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the

last Mughal, was left with nothing but his palace

in Delhi and the hollow title of Badshah


He was a king who felt weighed down by

the trappings of his office. Like his illustrious

ancestor Akbar, Zafar was more interested in

encouraging the arts and building gardens,

but he lacked the political acumen of dealing

with the political reality of a dynasty in

decline. Ghalib and Zauq, celebrated poets,

adorned Zafar's court. Zafar himself was a

mystic, poet, writer on Sufism, calligrapher,

and architect. He was also a very tolerant

king. It was during this surreal coexistence

of Zafar's life of aesthetic pleasure and the

expansion and consolidation of the British

empire, that 300 armed Indian sepoys and

cavalrymen (sawars) employed by the British

army suddenly rode into Delhi after killing

their British superiors in Meerut where an

uprising had broken out on May 10, 1857.

The soldiers repudiated British authority and

declared Zafar to be their leader, a position he

reluctantly accepted.

The Indian soldiers' grievance was that

they had been forced to bite the cartridges

of the newly introduced Enfield rifles. The

cartridges were smeared with cow and pig fat,

which offended their religious sensibilities.

But the uprising had deeper causes. May

10, 1857 is recorded in history books as the

day of the infamous Sepoy Mutiny, a British

view of the incident. Dalrymple, however,

gives us another perspective. After researching

20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents

relating to Delhi, known as the "Mutiny

Papers," Dalrymple and his colleagues, Mahmood

Farooqui and Bruce Wannelly, found for

the first time, what Dalrymple calls seeing the

events of 1857 in Delhi "from a properly Indian

perspective, and not just from the British

sources through which to date it has

usually been viewed."

Dalrymple also found

in these documents

descriptions of life in

Delhi in those troubled

times seen through

the eyes of ordinary

people. What Dalrymple


were "two parallel

streams of historiography

"which used

completely different

sources." He found

in the Punjab Archive,

hidden in the

tomb of Anarkali,

emperor Jehangir's

favorite dancer,

c o r re s p o n d e n c e

between the British

Resident and

his superiors in

Calcutta plotting

the total extinction of the Mughal

court, an ominous prelude to gradually gaining

total control over Delhi.

When the British came to India as officers

of the East India Company, their initial interest

was trade, and for this they adopted amicable

relations with local rulers. They even mingled

with Indians, some of them marrying Indian

women and having children by them. They

became interested in the native cultures of India

and studied Persian and Arabic diligently.

Some of them were attracted to the courtly

Muslim culture of Delhi, giving rise to "a sort

of Anglo-Mughal Islamo-Christian culture"

which served as a buffer between the Mughal

world and the British Company's Residency.

While this fusion of civilizations was going

on, there was also an intense movement by

Evangelical missionaries like Rev. Midgeley

Jennings to convert Muslims and Hindus, and

worse, to demolish mosques to construct

roads and churches.

The East India Company was morphing

into an empire: Siraj ud-Daula had been defeated

in Bengal in 1757, the French in 1761,

Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, the Marathas

in 1803 and 1819, and the Sikhs in 1849.

This expansion bred what Dalrymple calls

"an imperial arrogance." Thomas Babington

Macaulay famously articulated this superiority

complex by declaring that "a single shelf of a

good European library was worth the whole

native literature of India and Arabia." Macaulay's

brother-in-law, Charles Trevelyan, spearheaded

a movement to remodel

native madarasas,

once centers of Islamic

learning, open also to

Hindus, into the Delhi

College, to impart English

education. By 1852,

British imperialism was

becoming patently manifest,

and the rift grew

between Indians and the

British. Evangelical proselytization

also gave rise

to radical Islamism led by

Shah Waliullah who advocated

strict adherence

to Koranic law and vowed

to wage jihad against

Christians. The jihadists

also admonished the less

strict, pleasure-loving Sufis,

among who were Zafar

and Ghalib.

The British policy, born

of technological, economic,

and political superiority, displaced an entire

culture and disrupted the Hindu as well as

Muslim way of life. The insurgency by the

sepoys spread beyond the ranks of the army,

and was widely supported by the people. With

the breakdown of law and order, criminals

took over Delhi. Zafar was horrified by the

violence on both sides, but was helpless to

prevent it. After much carnage on both sides,

the British gained the upper hand and the

Indian sepoys either fled from Delhi or died

of starvation. Though legally the Company

was still a vassal of Zafar, the emperor was

tried in a kangaroo court, found "guilty" of an

international Muslim conspiracy to overthrow

the British Empire, and was sentenced to live

in exile in Rangoon. He died in 1862 and was

buried in an anonymous grave behind a prison

enclosure there.

Moderate Muslim voices were muted. Dalrymple

traces the roots of the al-Qaeda and

Taliban to the radical Islamism that emerged

from the 1857 Uprising from an orthodox madarasa founded in Deoband, in the Doab.

Quoting Edmund Burke, Dalrymple issues a

closing warning to those who fail to learn

from history. The "aggressive Western intrusion

and interference in the East," says Dalrymple,

radicalizes the ordinary Muslim, "and

feeds the power of extremists."


Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of

Technology for 20 years. She writes on American

and Indian-American literature, and is a National

Endowment for the Humanities fellow.

Wondering About India:

Palimpsest or Pentimento?


MODERN INDIA by Edward Luce. Doubleday, January,

2007. 383 pages. $26.00.

Decades ago A.L. Basham wrote an

academic tome titled The Wonder That

Was India. I happened across a pristine

copy in a second-hand bookshop near the

University of Chicago, where Indologists were

doing first-class scholarship about the Indian

subcontinent. My way of belonging to that

community was to acquire the books that

those scholars wrote and read. While I have

read most of the books that I've purchased,

Basham's book has remained pristinely unread

on my bookshelf. In part, I was intimidated

by its size (568 pages). And then there was

the weighty title written in the past tense.

Every time that I have lifted the book off of

its shelf, I've groaned at its heft and silently

complained, "But my India is a wonder."

Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The

Strange Rise of Modern India is an antidote

to books that suggest that the vitality of Indian

civilization expired sometime between

the Mughal Period and British Imperialism.

Luce shares the following anecdotal gem to

support his case that Indian culture has an

unparalleled thread of continuity: "When A.L.

Basham, the British classical historian, wrote

his still widely admired book The Wonder That

Was India in 1954, he tried to persuade his

American publishers to make a minor alteration

in the title ?. Professor Basham said that

in India's case the ‘was' should be changed to

‘is,' since the country's civilizational story was

unbroken." The publishers were unmoved by

the professor's argument.

Happily, Luce's readers will be moved by

the lively writing and provocative arguments

in In Spite of the Gods. Page after page is filled

with quote-worthy insight. The careful reader

is rewarded by questions that these insights

raise. For example, Luce notes that "in India

the modern lifestyle is just another layer on

the country's ancient palimpsest ? Most

Europeans tend to think of modernity as

the triumph of a secular way of life: church

attendance gradually dwindles and religion

becomes a minority pastime confined to worshipers'

private lives ? In Europe the past is

the past. But in India, the past is in many ways

also the future."

But is India a palimpsest, a layering of

old, religious ways onto the new? Do tradition

and modernity coexist like a grandparent

and grandchild in an extended family? How

far below the hip-hop-happening surface of

agnostic call centers does one need to scratch

to discover Aryans galloping on horseback to

their Hindu homeland? Or witness Ashoka's

conversion to Buddhism? Or experience

Akbar's ecumenical Islam?

If the metaphor of palimpsest hides more

than it illuminates, is India instead a pentimento?

Is it like those layered canvases where

earlier images show through as the top layer

of the painting becomes transparent with

age? Simply put, is India's post-Independence

democracy vanishing into some imagined Hindutva

past? Isn't this what the Hindu fundamentalists

rally around when they wave their

saffron flags and their Shiva-inspired tridents?

India as pentimento has Bal Thackeray, the

Shiv Sena supremo, menacing minorities with

dreams of a "Hindustan of Hindus" that would

bring "Islam in this country

down to its knees."

Luce rejects Thackeray's

sectarian vision. A scan of

his chapter titles suggests

that modern India is an aggregation

of its diverse,

multi-layered past: "Global

and Medieval," "The Burra

Sahibs," "Battles of the

Righteous," "Long Live the

Sycophants," "Many Crescents,"

and "A Triangular

Dance." The most forceful

argument for the past living

in the present is made

in the penultimate chapter

—"New India, Old

India: The Many-Layered

Character of Indian Modernity."

This is the only

chapter where the now

commonplace observations of call

centers and software sectors are discussed.

However, they are presented in the context

of the book's overall premise that India is a

wonder because of her many religions, her

dozen-plus languages, her thousands of dialects

which merge as a kind of dialectic within

and between cities and villages. Echoing V.S.

Naipaul's prescient observation that India has

a "million mutinies now," Luce forcefully raises

the palimpsest argument for pluralism.

But as hinted at in the book's title and

discussed in detail in a chapter titled "The

Imaginary Horse: The Continuing Threat of

Hindu Nationalism," Luce is anxious that the

pentimento theory is gaining currency. He

takes issue with powerful Hindu politicians

who seek to maintain the centuries-old status

quo and remain in control by manipulating the

illiterate masses (quite often low-caste Hindus

or Muslims). Luce supports his arguments

with a mix of meticulous journalistic reporting,

personal anecdote, and reference to wellaccepted

(at least in the West) scholarship.

The closing chapter illustrates how this

book of advocacy journalism works. Luce,

who is a reporter for the Financial Times, is

unabashedly a future-oriented Indophile; he

makes clear that he would like to see India's

trajectory toward superpower status continue.

He asserts that if India is to achieve this

desired state, the following four constraints

must be overcome: (1) 300 million impoverished

citizens, (2) environmental degradation,

(3) HIV-AIDS epidemic, and (4) challenges to

liberal democracy.

Luce's recommendations to overcome

these problems are specific and helpful, if at

times a bit overbearing. He does not mince

words. At first the prescriptive approach is

refreshingly candid and concrete. But page

after page of statistically supported prescription

begins to take on the feel of a hectoring

doctor who doesn't appreciate that the patient

is in control of her own destiny. Those

in the Indian government (and especially

those members

of the BJP party out of

government) might consider

In Spite of the Gods

a harangue. Indeed, Luce

repeatedly compares India

unfavorably to China,

repeating the following

mantra: "The problem is

neither money nor technology.

It is about the inefficiency

of government

?. Corruption is the only

possible explanation ?"

The harangue is spiced

with pithy quotes: "In Africa

poverty is a tragedy,

in India it is a scandal;" "It

is time for India's VIPs to

follow the people who get

no pay for no work;" "India

never misses an opportunity

to miss an opportunity;" "The 21st century is

India's to lose."

But just as the reader tires of the smart

statistics and the smart-aleck quotes, Luce

delivers a brilliantly personal closing story. He

relates a night journey in the first-class cabin

of an Indian train. One of his fellow passengers

is a 10-year-old Sikh boy who cheerfully

and sleeplessly implores Luce, "Tell me some

interesting things." This is a good frame of

mind for all of Luce's readers-cum-companions

on his journey through modern India. He

does tell us some interesting things. In Spite of

the Gods stirs the reader out of sleepy indifference

about the dreams and nightmares of the

palimpsest that is India—living at once in the

past, present, and future. —Rajesh C. Oza

Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.

  • Add to Twitter
  • Add to Facebook
  • Add to Technorati
  • Add to Slashdot
  • Add to Stumbleupon
  • Add to Furl
  • Add to Blinklist
  • Add to Delicious
  • Add to Newsvine
  • Add to Reddit
  • Add to Digg
  • Add to Fark
blog comments powered by Disqus

Back to articles






Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Click here  



Krishnan Co WebBanner.jpg



Global Holidays Axar Travel Banner ad.png

SDK small banner 7-16.jpg