Book Review: White Mughals by William Dalrymple.

White Mughals.

Paperback: 640 pages41F2TQJ604L
Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (19 April 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0006550967
ISBN-13: 978-0006550969

The appearance of the hardback that I picked up second hand, is dark and mysterious. The celebrated portrait of the Palmer family on the cover, which though admirable, does not quite suit the actual story, more fitting is the latest paperback production of the book that shows the lovely portrait of  Khair un Nissen on a white background. Credit is due to the publishers for using the gilt lettering but without embossing the text, thus you can read it without taking off the dust jacket for fear of rubbing off the gilt.
Amusingly this used book showed the usual signs of a volume well read, at least twice. The usually crisp white block of pages striped with muddy grey lines deriving from a close hold and much finger flicking, the deepest stain indicated that the previous owner, whose dedication adorns the primary pages, often turned for help to glossary, when the many Indian terms became too much.
Here you are dealing with about 501 reading pages, so its a hefty number, with three sections of very fascinating pictures and beautiful, with between 1-4 pictures per page

This is now a famous book, there is a fan club and an intense almost cult following of Dalrymple’s works and it has taken a great deal of time for me to find out why. The author has all the ingredients a successful writer of History needs to attain international acclaim, and White Mughal’s succinctly encompasses them all.
An unknown subject, built upon by utterly new and fresh personal research that brings not only new light but compleltey new evidence and sources to a given field. This is indeed rare.
A solid and lucid narrative style inspired not so much by the subject but by the author’s personal experience of living in the country the work is set.
A deep knowledge of the literature and culture aside from the work at hand that props up the narrative and adds depth.
And last but not least the author is utterly sympathetic with to his subject and admiring and perhaps enamoured, as many writers often become when dealing with personal discoveries, of the characters involved.

The book purports to tell the story of a romance, or an affair, whichever, between British resident in Hyderabad James Kirkpatrick and the highborn “Begum” Khair un Nissen.
However due to the fact that “Khair’s” voice in the relationship is largely missing, it actually tells a much wider and richly embroidered story of a once cosmopolitan and cross cultural 18th century British India, full of open exchanges of ideas, religion and culture, changing into the Imperial, racially superior model it became reviled for.
It is the failing of new evidence that it usually needs an awful lot of beefing out to make a half decent book, and this is partially true here, but in this case the new evidence beefs out the already written record, usually dominated by Governor General Lord Mornington and his younger brother Arthur Wellesley.
Those like me, familiar with the Duke of Wellington’s India time, will own that it is entirely one dimensional, and largely concentrates on his service in carrying out his brother’s expansionist aims, and sheds only fragmentary light on the India either was dealing with. Little did I know when I picked up this book that this provides exactly that.
Here, through the story of William and James Kirkpatrick, Khair un Nissen and the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, we see the decaying grandeur of Mughal India, the politics concerning this vital princely state, usually relegated to a paragraph or two in most history books not specifically academic, the power struggle of Mornington’s uncompromising imperialism against the still proud yet pressured State of Mysore ultimately doomed to destruction. Similarly the last of Mornington’s achievements, the breaking of the Maratha Confederacy and the change in direction of British India.
Not only does it weave these rich threads, Dalrymple’s loom creates a vignette of Anglo Indian relationships during the early Raj, the motives an Indian woman would have to becoming a White Mughal’s wife, the trials of a bibi, or the longer term harem mistress and the bleak fate that ultimately faced the vast majority. One of the many interesting background stories I found was the French interest in India, represented by several mercenary officers, who seemed to carry over their royalist and revolutionary ideals to India, this is just one of the fascinating sidelines this book investigates.

Even though I find it a little amusing that any cavalry regiment of the line at this time should be compared to the SAS, this is without doubt a vital piece of reading for students of British Indian History and one I heartily recommend.


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