August Reads

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteen Century India by William Dalrymple

Recommended by Ziyadd

White Mughals

The late 1700 and early 1800's in India was a time of tremendous political, societal, and cultural upheaval, with much jockeying for power and riches by Indians and Britons, with the latter being considerably more successful, and this complex time served as the backdrop to this surprising story.

It is difficult to find a way to succinctly describe this fascinating non-fiction exploration of cross-cultural love and loss which touches on military history, sexual mores, trade, politics, architecture, social history and so very much more. But I am going to do my best.

Using primary sources like diaries, dispatches, reports (some of which in code) and many other documents in English, Persian and Hindi (some of which had never previously been seen), Dalrymple has pulled together a colourful cast of characters to provide insight into this unique time and place.

James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the British Representative for the East India Company at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. He had enormous respect and appreciation for the culture in which he found himself, to the extent that he converted to Islam and embraced the way of life, architecture and behaviour. Further, he fell in love with the much younger Khair un-Nissa, an aristocratic Muslim woman, said to be descended from Mohammed himself. She had strong feelings for him, and their relationship echoed the turmoil and change that would colour the experience of India, and the British in India, for decades to come. Alas, the tide was turning within the East India Company. Men who respected, valued and ever preferred the Mughal way of life were no longer tolerated, and it was Kirkpatrick's misfortune to be there as the shift in attitude and prejudice was occurring.

There are many people who leapt off the page, but perhaps none so much as Aristu Jah. This former Prime Minister of the Nizam in Hyderabad was imprisoned in 1795 by Maratha forces who supported the French. Over two years later "not only had he been successful in negotiating his own release, he had managed to get the Marathas to agree to return almost all the land and fortresses that had been ceded to them after the Battle of Khardla. They had even waived the enormous indemnity owed to them by the Nizam". This is a man of some astonishing ability! Another stand out character was the so-called Colourful Colonel, James Kirkpatrick's raffish father, whose household in England was a diverse and interesting one.

I am so glad I read this book. Dalrymple is a deservedly celebrated and recognized social historian who has written a number of award winning books on Mideast topics. He is widely travelled, and since his first visit in 1984, has lived on and off in Delhi since 1989.

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