Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

William Dalrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India. London: Harper Collins, 2002.

Reviewed by John Bedell

James KirkpatrickI have learned more from William Dalrymple's fascinating White Mughals than anything else I have read in years. This is partly because it is set in a time and place I knew almost nothing about, but there is more. The story Dalrymple tells is one of those in which romance and family life collide with historical change, personalizing great events and casting new light on human life amidst the whirl of cultural conflict. Dalrymple draws many characters and events into his narrative, and almost always the additions add richness to his tale rather than simple heft. The book is quite long, 400 substantial pages, and it seemed even longer because of the confusing thicket of Indian and Persian names, Mughal titles, and unfamiliar institutions. But the length allows Dalrymple to depict a whole world. We see the courts of the dying Mughal empire, the lives of noble women enclosed in the zenana but still wielding great influence, the pageantry of Indian Islam, the adventure of young men come out to work for the mighty East India Company, most of them doomed to early death but the lucky survivors more likely to get very, very rich than almost any group of ambitious merchants in history.

The center of the tale is the marriage of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident (ambassador) at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805, to Khair un-Nissa, a Mughal woman of very aristocratic family. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been routine for  British men in India to marry Indian women, and indeed to assimilate themselves to Indian culture in other ways. We have many depictions of Englishmen in this period smoking hookahs in native costume while they watch performances of dancing girls or join the hunts of Rajahs and Mughals. Around 1800, though, this was changing. The more puritanical, nationalist, and racist attitudes of the Victorian age were taking hold among the agents of Imperial Britain, and to "go native" was seen more and more as a betrayal of Englishness and the white race. James's marriage caused a great scandal and was the subject of three formal investigations. It is largely as a result of this scandal that we know so much about James and Khair; the many English-Indian marriages of earlier times excited little comment, and so passed mostly beneath the notice of history.

Khair-un-NissaJames Kirkpatrick had the mindset of the earlier generation. He was a great admirer of Indian culture and of Islam. When he attended the Nizam's court, he dressed as a Mughal nobleman, and he became an expert both in the languages of the court (Persian and Urdu) and in its rituals. It is hardly surprising that when he fell in love, it was with a native women. James tried at first to keep his marriage  from his English superiors, but he had arrived in India too late for his actions to avoid attracting attention. Word spread, and not in pleasant forms. The first rumors that reached Calcutta said that James had raped Khair and then bullied her family into handing her over to him. Since the Nizam of Hyderabad was a crucial English ally in their struggle to control India and keep the French out, this naturally caused great alarm. As the inquests showed, though, it was not true. Rather, it seems that James was at first the victim of a plot hatched by Khair's mother and grandmother, who allowed him to meet their beautiful young daughter and then encouraged the feelings of the two lovers, even allowing them to sleep together before they were formally wed. Why they did this is somewhat obscure, although there was no shortage of rumors. As Dalrymple reconstructs the tale, it seems that they wanted, first, to abort a match proposed for Khair by her uncle and guardian, to a man that the women thought completely unsuitable. They considered the powerful, wealthy, much-admired British resident a much better match, and so they engineered the affair. Or perhaps, as other sources have it, it was driven by Khair herself (right), who fell in love with Kirkpatrick after observing him from behind a curtain, and then as a spoiled favorite child induced her relatives to grant her will. The result of this conniving was that Khair become pregnant, and Kirkpatrick "did the right thing" by formally marrying her.

However the relationship began, it blossomed into a great love. James repeatedly risked his career by determined loyalty to Khair, and she risked her life by fidelity to him. They had two children together, and seemed to have shared much happiness before a series of tragic events got under way that I will not spoil. It is a lovely tale. 

The Kirkpatrick ChildrenThe two children were sent to be educated in England, and one of them grew up to be a famous beauty who knew Thomas Carlyle and served as the inspiration for one of his characters. George Chinnery painted the two children just as they were leaving for Britain, a famous image that now hangs in the board room of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (left). This was their last week as Indians, dressed in Mughal court finery. As soon as they boarded the ship for England they became George and Kitty Kirkpatrick and were brought up to be English, deprived of all contact with their Indian relatives and their early lives.

In telling this story Dalrymple is not interested primarily in just this one romance. Because both husband and wife were so politically important, their marriage became embroiled in the politics of the Nizam's court, and my favorite parts of the book were actually those that examined the rise and fall of ministers and the mix of ceremonial whirl and political tension that was court life in eighteenth-century India. Dalrymple wonderfully evokes the lost world of late Mughal India, with its poets, saints, warriors, sorcerers, ambitious courtiers, and powerful women who controlled events from behind the scenes. This age still had much of the flavor of medieval Persia, but it is copiously documented, so we can follow the lives of noble Hyderabadis in their own letters and proclamations, local chronicles, reports from British and French ambassadors, and many other sources. My favorite character was the wily minister Aristu Jah ("glory of Aristotle"), who guided Hyderabad through the violent storms of Indian politics at a time when many states disappeared. One of Aristu Jah's few serious mistakes was to convince his master to make war on the Maratha Confederacy, a powerful league of Hindu princes to his north.  After Hyderabad was badly beaten in the war, the Maratha chief minister insisted that Aristu Jah be handed over as his prisoner.  So Aristu Jah was packed off to prison in Pune, and Hyderabad had to give up much territory along the border and pay a huge indemnity. Did this stop Aristu Jah? No:

In the late summer of 1797 Aristu Jah, the former Prime Minister who had ben imprisoned in Pune for over two years, sent some extraordinary news to the Nizam: not only had he succeeded 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 Kharlda. They had even waived the enormous indemnity owed to them by the Nizam. So astounding was this news, and so remarkable was Aristu Jah's achievement in neogtiating it from confinement, that many of his contemporaries assumed that he could only have achieved this coup with the aid or sorcery.

Aristu Jah Even more than the lost world of Mughal India, what Dalrymple most wants is to evoke the time when British and Indians interacted as equals, and the British were just as likely to copy native ways as to impose their own. He wants to dwell on this epoch of cooperation and mutual admiration, before the racism and rigidity of the nineteenth century divided the British and Indians from each other. Perhaps he is a bit naive about this time, and perhaps most people on both sides never felt the sort of warmth that James Kirkpatrick felt for his wife and friends. But in our multicultural age, the behavior of the eighteenth-century British in India is a better model than that of their Victorian successors.

For a historian, the story of Dalrymple's research is as fascinating as that of James and Khair. Dalrymple first heard of James and Khair from a tour guide in Hyderabad, and he learned the basics of their story from a scholar whose office was in a crumbling corner of the old British Residency, built by Kirkpatrick himself. He followed the tale through the records of the East India Company and the letters of the Kirkpatrick family. Some of the crucial letters were in a cipher that he could not break until he stumbled across a letter in which the recipient had written in the translation above the numerical code. With each discovery, his knowledge deepens and the story grows. It is a historians' romance as much as one for lovers. Let me reprint one part of the tale, as Dalrmple tells it, to give the flavor of this remarkable quest:

On the last day of my final visit to Hyderabad, after three trips and several months in the different archives, I spent the afternoon looking for presents in the bazaars of the old city behind the Char Minar. I had forgotten to buy anything for my family, and with my eye on my watch, as the plane to Delhi was due to take off in only five hours' time, I frantically trailed from shop to shop, looking for someone who could sell me some of Hyderabad's great specialty: decorated Bidri metalwork. Eventually a boy offered to take me to a shop where he said I could find a Bidri box. He led me deep into the labyrinth behind the Chowk Masjid. There, down a small alley, lay a shop where promised I would find ‘booxies booxies.'

The shop did not in fact sell boxes, but books (or ‘booksies', as my guide had been trying to tell me). Or rather, not so much books as Urdu and Persian manuscripts and very rare printed chronicles. These the proprietor had bought up from private Hyderabadi libraries when the great aristrocratic city palaces were being stripped and bulldozed throughout the sixties and seventies. They now lay stacked from floor to ceiling in a dusty, ill-lit shop the size of a large broom cupboard.  More remarkably still, the bookseller knew exactly what he had. When I told him what I was writing, he produced from under a stack a huge, crumbling Persian book, the Kitab Tuhfat al-‘Alam, by Abdul Lateef Shushtari, a name I already knew well from James Kirkpatrick's letters. The book turnout to be a fascinating six-hundred-page autobiography by Khair un-Nissa's first cousin, written in Hyderabad in the immediate aftermath of the scandal of her marriage to James. There were other manuscripts, too, including a very rare Hyderabadi history of the period, the Gulzar i-Asafiya. I spent the rest of the afternoon haggling with the owner and left his shop 400 poorer, but with a trunkload of previously untranslated primary sources.

If only studying history were like that more often.        

December 23, 2012

From the 
Commonplace Book

The attraction of passionate love united the separated ones. All who had witnessed this scene shuddered in awe and the more compassionate ones fainted. Rumours about the misfortune spread through the city. The girl's parents were so grief-stricken that they soon died. This is what love the troublemaker has done: it laid to rest, side by side, the victims of separation as well as those responsible for it. 

--The Story of Wonders, by Rajab Ali Beg Suroor, a tale of love between an Englishman and an Indian woman, written in Lucknow in the eighteenth century 


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