The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple

Fall of a chessboard king
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On my shelf is the 13th edition (published in 1942) of Begamat ke Aansu, a collection of chronicles of what befell members of the Mughal court during and after the Indian Uprising of 1857. Unrelenting and spare, the book is all the more compelling for its simplicity. Known to several generations of readers of Urdu, and part of oral lore as well, its plain tales of arbitrary punishment, displacement and uprooted lives record the devastation of a thriving culture. They provide a compelling alternative to the views of official historians of the Raj, whose perspectives on the so-called Mutiny are inevitably those of the victorious.

Hasan Nizami, author of these chronicles, is only one among the many indigenous and vernacular sources referred to, and often echoed or endorsed, by William Dalrymple in his diligently researched and densely informative new book. The diary and letters of the hedonistic Ghalib, the period's greatest poet, are cited, along with the words of far less famous eyewitnesses: Indian, Eurasian and English.

Dalrymple's recreation of the city of Delhi under siege forms the monumental backdrop to the tragic figure of the eponymous monarch, the "last Mughal". Aged 82 and abidingly fond of the arts of peace, Bahadur Shah Zafar was chosen as a mascot by an army seen as rebels and mutineers by the British, and as freedom fighters by some nationalist historians.

Dalrymple does not merely map the Uprising, although its tumultuous events do take up much of his book. By choosing to focus on one, major city and its native and foreign residents, he supports the thesis that, far from being a homogeneous movement against the growing supremacy of the British, the revolt emerged from the multi-faceted grievances of an eclectic group. It encompassed rulers, artisans and peasants, with their varied regional interests.

Most Indian writers have tended to concentrate, in fiction and non-fiction, on battles fought in other regions or on leaders far less ambivalent about the cause than Zafar, with his predilection for poetry and Sufism, appears in Dalrymple's view to have been. Dalrymple alludes to these national heroes only in passing, but gives us in effect a fuller picture of the devastation of Delhi than has ever before been presented in English. He juxtaposes the perspectives of both sides, culminating in the orgy of retribution and revenge killings that followed the British conquest of the city.

Like Nizami's chronicles, Dalrymple's work laments the loss of an elegant tradition and its contingent way of life. It is also a celebration of what was lost. He announces his intention at the outset, in the ingenious architectural design of an introduction that begins with the funeral, in Rangoon, of the dethroned Zafar. He does not, he tells us, intend this as a biography of Zafar, already an old man when the epic narrative begins. Yet a defence of the gentle, tolerant poetic personality of the last Mughal against Indian and British misrepresentations is an important agenda here.

Dalrymple begins his saga with the detailed reconstruction of Delhi as a cosmopolis that rivals Rome, Istanbul and Cairo in the grandeur of its buildings, art, music and poetry. Its aristocracy, elite and artists are enraptured, with some justification, with their city and themselves. The flowering of their culture persists in defiance of the successive waves of invasion, subjugation and sickness that have engulfed the city for a century and a quarter. Their benign, tolerant and pluralistic "chessboard king" presides over the rivalries of his sons and wives, the adulteries of his concubines, and the feuds of the poets he patronises. He puts up with the British presence at his gate with an exemplary dignity and overlooks the attempts of the foreigners to undermine it.

The pursuit of pleasure that seems to characterise the fashionable inhabitants of the city is nevertheless in marked contrast to the English incomers' gradual hardening of attitudes towards race and culture. The puritanical religious stance of a growing section of the indigenous middle class is also in conflict with the soft, syncretic practise of popular belief, which united Hindus and Muslims at the shrines of Sufi saints.

When he comes to describing, in profuse detail, the siege of Delhi, Dalrymple does not romanticise it. Delhi's elegant residents are appalled by the mob of provincial soldiers that raid, rape and ransack in the name of freedom, even if at first they pay lip-service to the idea of liberation from foreign oppression. The old king is seen as hesitant and unwilling to lead the fighters, though some of his many sons see the uprising as an opportunity to gain power.

Far harsher, though, is the book's recording of British intransigence when power and control are finally regained. In the concluding sections, the tone changes from elegy to epic and back. It narrates the decimation of the king's family along with the Muslim elite and anyone seen as an ally of the rebels, the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and, above all, the rewriting of the revolt by British chroniclers as a Muslim insurgency with probable links to other Islamic empires.

But in his grand narrative, Dalrymple does not lose sight of the king's tragic end. Popular legend, for example, has it that the heads of Zafar's young sons were served up to him by his captors on a covered golden dish. Although Dalrymple doesn't retell that story, he gives us the British account, which is almost as brutal, of how the princes were hunted and shot down.

Dalrymple sees 1857 and the fall of the Mughal dynasty as the end of Indo-Islamic culture. In conclusion, he comments on those Muslims of the post-Uprising intelligentsia who, like their champion Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, believed that "they could revive their fortune only by embracing Western learning".

Rather than a straightforward acceptance of the coloniser's norms, this was an ambiguous encounter with modernity, with prose, poetry and ideas reformed radically in "the new light" of scientific learning and the reform of the Urdu language.

Several intellectuals emerged, often in cities such as Hyderabad and Lahore, where their culture had survived in the decades between 1857 and the First World War. After Hali, who is mentioned here, came the novelist Nazir Ahmed, the philosopher Shibli Naumani and later - and perhaps most notably - the poet Iqbal.

All these men tried to reclaim the best of what was Indo-Islamic and adapt it to the modern world. Iqbal was from Lahore, another Mughal city where a tradition of art, music and poetry continued to thrive. He is actually credited with the idea of Pakistan, the land envisaged as the culmination, after the defeat of 1857, of Indo-Islamic hopes. But that, of course, is another story.

Aamer Hussein's new collection of stories, 'Insomnia', is due next spring from Telegram