Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: The Last Mughal

Full title: The Last Mughal: Eclipse of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (non-fiction) 
Writer: William Dalrymple
First published: 2006
Available: From a well stocked bookstore, or in paperback from Amazon

Quote: "As the sun set, the churches, mosques and temples filled again: the ringing of the bells of the evening arti, the final call to prayer from the minarets, and the basso profundo of the organ chords concluding Padre Jennings' evensong in St James's, all fusing together with the rumble of British carriages heading out towards the Civil Lines through the bottleck of the Kashmiri Gate –where the bricking up of the second of the two arches was a cause of frequent complaints in the Delhi Gazette."

The Last Mughal is a very ambitious book. It seemingly has a rather narrow focus – Delhi during the Mutiny of 1857 – but the scope is still immense. William Dalrymple went where few had gone before him in taking on not only the sources from one side of the conflict, but both, and in doing so, he utilized  Indian archival material in Urdu that has not been available to Western readers until this book was published.

With a florid and evocative prose, Dalrymple starts out by painting a picture of Delhi in the 1850s - the poets and artists; the princes and the colonial bureaucrats. The major events leading up to the fateful day of 11 May, 1857, are all described, as are the major players - Theo Metcalfe, Queen Zinat Mahal, the zealous Reverend Jennings and, of course, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor himself.

The chain of events that lead to the massacre of Englishmen and the subsequent British attempt at extermination of Delhi, is described as complicated and going far back, being built into the very structures of the British presence in India. In one sense, the events seem perfectly unnecessary - surely, they could have been avoided with a little more tact and less polarisation - and at the same time, they seem as unavoidable as the impact of a running steam train.

Dalrymple doesn't spare the reader, neither in depicting the atrocities committed by both sides, nor by handing out simple answers, such as who was right or how this might easily have been avoided. It is remarkable to be able depict the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of humans in cold blood without dehumanising the perpetrators; something that might make the events easier to understand but would also serve to detach the readers. These horrors are committed by people, not monsters, and as such it is a chilling read, indeed.

One is struck – or at least I am – by how unfamiliar with the Hindu-Muslim culture of the Mughals most of us are, and how much Islam has been invariably linked with intolerance in Western propaganda, as if fanaticism is equal with true Islam, rather than an interpretation made by certain individuals. In that sense this book is invaluable in understanding the radicalisation of Islam and the part the Western world has played in it. In fact, anyone seeking to understand the roots of fundamentalist sects in Pakistan and Afghanistan today is well-served by reading this book, as is anyone with an interest in Indian history.

Highly recommended.

I gave it 5/5 of Goodreads.

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