Saturday, November 04, 2006

The last Mughal chronicler

Nilanjana has a lovely full-page piece on William Dalrymple and The Last Mughal in today’s edition of the Business Standard Weekend (online link here, though it’s much more satisfying to read in the print version). They walk around Mehrauli’s Zafar Mahal (which used to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s summer palace), discuss Dalrymple’s book, the forgotten treasures of Delhi and the lack of accessible writing about historical figures in India…and then they run into a direct descendant of the Emperor.
The gentleman makes a small, deprecating gesture and says gently, “I wanted to tell you to write about Zafar’s court, many mistakes have been made in the accounts, about Ilahi Baksh and others.” We stand in a small knot, flanked by the dargah, Zafar Mahal and nouveau kitsch buildings, discussing the members of Zafar’s court with as much passion as contemporary Dilliwallas bring to a discussion of, say, Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle.

“So modest,” says Dalrymple as we make our polite, courtly farewells. “He identified himself as ‘Pakeezah’s cousin’ — another man would have said outright, I am the descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar.” He should be used to the unusual encounter, the strange coincidence, but there is something rather wonderful about meeting a descendant of the emperor as we emerge from Zafar Mahal, on the day of one of the best-loved festivals of Mughal and modern times.
Full piece here.


  1. Jai, you meet such interesting people and I love to read about them. I also like reading your film and book reviews.

  2. Thanks, Saloni. But which interesting people are you talking about in this context? Not the Zafar descendant I hope, because I've only met him through a degree of separation - since I've met Nilanjana and William D :)

  3. A review- The Last Mughal
    As a frequent visitor to the walled city I knew for long that ‘Tilanga’ has a pejorative connotation. Its connection with Tilangana is understandable too but how it got into the lingo of the city was always a mystery to me. Dalrymple’s Last Mughal not only helped me solved this riddle but its live and sensitive narrative without compromising the rigor of the discipline broke many stereotypes that have crept into the corpus of histories written for the period.

    John Company recruited its soldiers for the Carnatic wars from Tilangana and the native recruits were addressed as Tilangas. Later Avadh supplied majority of Company soldiers but the appellation continued in currency and was interchangeably used with Purbias-the Easterners (read foreigners). The unbecoming behavior of sepoys, who came to Delhi in search of a leader to head the rebellion, got embedded in the memory of its inhabitants.

    Colonial school of historiography has consumed reams on manufacturing and projecting Hindu-Muslim hiatus a phenomenon of pre-colonial India. Syncretism being the hallmark of Indian history and culture and White Mughals were the living testimony to this assertion. No one is as good as Dalrymple in recreating the life and times of these whites who showed no qualms in mixing with the natives. Author should have explored the social background of these early company recruits to explain the friendly attitude towards natives. It is of interest to note that most of them were from Scotland& Ireland – underdeveloped parst of then England. Life in the cantonment, Delhi’s bazaars and even the food habits of Indian and British find authentic mention in the book. The most amusing is the account of innumerable gastronomical gourmet laid on the dinner table of English Sahibs and their routine of consuming six meals a day.

    Life in the fort, daily routine of emperor and especially evening Mushairas were described to their last detail. The affairs of concubines with courtiers were very embarrassing for the aging and ailing emperor indicated that the sunset of Mughal dynasty was just round the corner. Moneylenders seizing Mirza Shah Rukh to recover their debts and helpless Emperor did not take any retaliatory action testifies that he was nearly reduced to nullity. The thefts committed by salatins highlighted their impecunious life. Money arranged from the moneylenders of city by the chief Eunuch Mebob Ali, the confidant of Zinat Mahal, for the marriage of her only son Jawan Bakth and the grand marriage procession that gave us the glimpse of the grandeur and scale of the weddings of Mughal Royalty and author’s penchant for nuance and detail makes it a fascinating reading.

    One is charmed to read the graphic accounts of the life of Delhi’s leading family of white Mughals –the Skinners. The famous editor of pro British Delhi Gazette, Mr.Wagentrieber, was the son-in-law of James Skinner who’s English according to Fanny Eden, who interviewed him, was stilted and ungrammatical. The interesting parallels in the lives of Zafar and Thomas Metcalf could convince you that their fate was under the spell of the same ominous celestial configuration. Death of his daughter-in-law in spooky circumstances, Theo’s wife, is like a chapter of Ghost stories of Raj by Ruskin Bond.

    Did you know that Zafar used different pen name-Shuaq-e- Rang (passionate) for his writings in Braj Basha and Punjabi? The legendary rivalry of Zauq and Ghalib must have given an extra sting to Mirza’s poetry and he could not hide his jealousy and annoyance for Emperor being partisan in favour of less versatile Ustad-Zauq. Mirza’s meager annual income of Rs750/- his share of the family pension- was insufficient to sustain and maintain even a semblance of the life style expected of Mughal nobility. The death of Mirza Fakhru-the heir apparent who was Ghalib’s disciple and annexation of Avadh from where he was getting Rs 500/- annual stipend - augmented his financial difficulties. Life of Mirza was a reflection of the life of Mughal elite of the period. His sharp observations of his sojourn at Calcutta , his pride preventing him to take up a teaching job in Delhi College, his disgust with Tilangas and brutalities of British all were weaved into the narrative to convey the first hand account by one of the most agile minds of the times marked by chaos and mayhem.

    It is understandable that ailing Zafar was disinterested in his trial but Zafar’s ignorance to differentiate between Persians & Russians when asked about his intrigue with the former is indeed baffling. Jawan Bakht the most adorable son of Zafar trading secrets about his mother’s treasure and passing on incriminating evidences against emperor for mere 100 cheroots. There is no two saying that the royal scion showed no ability and dignity to inherit the empire. The termite of decay had completely engulfed the mighty Mughal Empire once the envy of its contemporaries.

    After the capture of Zafar from Humayun Tomb by Col. Hudson, fond of Urdu poetry, shot a couplet- dam dame me dam nahi khair maango jahan ki / ab ho chuki talwar hindustan ki. Zafar retorted back with an immortal verse – jab talaq rahegi hindiyon mein boo imaan ki / tab talaq chalegi tage British pe talwar Hindustan ki.( As long as there is a drop of conscience left among Indians they continue to fight British). Except the chance omission of this small but important incident the book is the most authentic account of life and times of Zafar.

    Dalrymple has earned the berth in the exclusive club of historians who can write history with an absorbing narrative and spare the reader being subjected to dull and dry narrative. Going by author’s own admission that he could explore only ten percent of the material at his disposal, including hitherto unexplored mutiny papers, we can expect that the next edition will be richer in terms of empirical data and analysis. Publisher should have considered releasing paper back edition for Indian readers too as they have done oversees.

    Vikram Kumar