Book Review: The White Mughals-William Dalrymple

The White Mughals by William Dalrymple was the first book of the author I read; since then, I have read four of his books, each having its its own taste but the White Mughal has an everlasting nostalgic impact on me.

Although a romantic and ultimately heartbreaking tale of a passionate love affair that transcended all the cultural, religious and political boundaries of its time, The White Mughals has three parallel narratives.

The first narrative tells the tragic love story of James Kirkpatrick, an ambitious soldier in the army of the East India Company, and became ‘the thoroughly orientalised’ British Resident of East India Company at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. In 1798 he had a glimpse of Kkair  un-Nissa, the great-niece of the Nizam’s Prime Minister and immediately fell in love with the ‘Most excellent among Women’. After overcoming many obstacles both married and bore two children. Kirkpatrick converted to Islam, and according to Indian sources even became a double-agent working for the Hyderabadis against the East India Company.

The saddest and most tragic part of the whole story is that after the death of James Kirkpatrick, their two children were separated from their mother under the policy of the East India Company to send them to England being children of a British citizen. The daughter Kitty becomes a friend and muse of Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and re-establishes contact with her grandmother in India

The second narrative is the social history of 19th century India. Set in Hyderabad India of the 19th century, the book describes in meticulous details the warm relations that existed between the British and some Indians in the 18th and early 19th century.  He has painted an extremely fascinating picture of social etiquette of the Indian nobility and Indianised English employees of the East India Company, documenting the inter-ethnic liaisons between British officers and Indian women before the advent of increasingly racist and dismissive attitude among the British ruling class towards the locals, even towards the mixed race offspring.   His description of colourful figures of the ‘white Mughals’ who wore local dress and adopted Indian ways, transports the reader to an era never seen in any colony. For example,  who can imagine to see ‘Hindoo Stuart’, who travelled with his own team of Brahmins to maintain his temple of idols, or Sir David Ochterlony, who took all thirteen of his wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of their own elephant?

Third narrative is the geopolitical context of late 18th century India, the rivalry between the English and the French for the control of colonies as well as the power struggle among the various Indian states for self-aggrandizement in the twilight years of the decaying Mughal Empire. At a very higher plane, it also examines the interactions of two great religions- Christianity and Islam, emphasizing the surprisingly harmonious relationship between the two in pre-modern era.

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