David Robinson of the writing of William Dalrymple’s “brilliant” White Mughals:
On the trail of a lost love
Scenes from a writer’s life, No 1
London, Monday, 2 June, 1pm
William Dalrymple’s bank manager is upset. He rings up to say that there’s been all due notification, all proper warnings have been issued, all the requisite letters have been sent out. But because there’s been no sign of any attempt to pay off the overdraught, and 27,000 is a lot of money, well surely he’ll understand if …
Bottom line: don’t write any more cheques, because as of 9am , the bank will have to refuse them.
Scenes from a writer’s life, No 2
London, Monday 2 June, 9pm.
ANOTHER telephone call about money, this time from the organisers of the Wolfson History Prize. Dalrymple’s White Mughals, has won 10,000 in the annual award for Britain’s best history book judged by the Fellows of All Souls.
Bottom line: could he possibly come to Claridge’s to pick it up?
Scenes from a writer’s life, No 3
Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh. Thursday, 5 June, 1:05pm,
RICHARD Holloway, chairman of the judges for the Scottish Arts Council’s Book of the Year awards, starts off by talking about what a brilliant year it was for Scottish writing. They always say that, but this time it’s true. There are two other books on the shortlist for the 10,000 award : Janice Galloway’s Clara, widely held to be the best Scottish novel for years, and a short story collection by Jackie Kay that Ali Smith, one of the judges, reckons will still be read centuries from now.
No clues that non-fiction is going to get any kind of a look-in until, right at the end, Holloway gets to his feet and makes the announcement. And Dalrymple gets up and walks to the podium. Money. Again.
IN ITALY, White Mughals is marketed as a “non-fiction novel” about a love affair. In America, its publishers put on the back quotes saying it is essential reading for anyone wanting to know how Islam relates to the West. The fact that they’re both right is one of the reasons it’s won two of Britain’s top literary awards in the same week.
For one thing, it’s a love story, and romantic love was just as rare a commodity in 1797 Hyderabad as in Jane Austen’s England. No ordinary love story either, because the relationship between the beautiful 14-year-old Khair un-Nissa and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the East India Company’s ambassador to the Hyderabadi court, scandalously crossed more cultural, political and religious boundaries than any passionate fling between a Montagu and a Capulet. According to some contemporaries, it imperilled the whole future of Britain’s nascent empire.
Why? Because Khair un-Nissa was stratospherically high-born, a descendant of no less than the prophet Mohammad. According to tradition, only another member of her extended family could ever hope to marry her.
So, back to Hyderabad in 1797. Rumours are rife. Khair un-Nissa’s been raped by this British adventurer, say some of her relatives. Honour demands that they rouse the whole of the Deccan to rebel against the interlopers. The French are working out how to take advantage of the situation: meanwhile, Napoleon’s in Egypt, apparently heading east …
The British in Madras, alarmed, set up their own inquiries. Kirkpatrick denies everything, insists that he never raped the girl but that her own mother wants the two of them to marry. “I wish he had her,” she says, “in the manner that he might have had her, before the Distinctions introduced by Moosa [Moses], Issa [Jesus] and Mahomed were known in the world.”
And here we get to the heart of the book’s appeal. For what would a world without those distinctions look like? And how close did it come, in early British India, this imagined but never fully realised world without competing heavens and religions, codes and castes?
Kirkpatrick’s superiors are worried. For in marrying Khair un-Nissa, he’s gone completely native. Henna’d hands, smoking a hookah, wearing Moslem dress, converting to Islam (circumcision and all) are rather obvious signs. But – and Dalrymple’s breathtaking scholarship establishes this beyond the possibility of doubt – he wasn’t alone. The founding fathers of Britain’s Indian empire, he shows, were not the stiff upper-lipped arrogant racists of the Raj. For a few golden years around the turn of the 19th century, they were actually far more multi-cultural than us.
There. Apart from the stylistic brilliance of his writing, that’s the real reason for White Mughals’s appeal. Here is a world where competing civilisations don’t have to clash, but can merge at their edges – a far more optimistic interpretation of history than we’re used to, post-9/11. And here too is a world where skin colour really doesn’t seem to matter too much at all. Early British India was a long way from being institutionally anti-racist, but a full third of its officers in the 1780s had Indian wives and loved them enough to leave them their money when they died. “The India of the East India Company,” says Dalrymple, “was an infinitely more culturally, racially and religiously mixed place than modern Britain can even dream of becoming.”
The love affair between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa (literally, “Most Excellent Among Women”) is, then, part of another, and far wider, secret love affair between Britain and India. Until now, neither story has been properly told.
Historians dream of breaking fresh ground, but seldom do, yet with this book Dalrymple has a whole sub-continent’s worth. But although at first he wanted to paint a wider picture of how easily the British “went native” in late 18th century India, the more he found out about Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa, the more he realised how special it was and how it needed to be told properly.
He’d planned on finishing the book in three years, but to follow the course of this 18th-century love and marriage, he was going to have to go back to the archives for at least another year. So he remortgaged his Chiswick house, took his children out of private school, and began to find out more about Kirkpatrick and his beautiful young bride, how she was betrayed after his death, and the deeply poignant and utterly expected story of what happened to their two children back in Britain.
The wider story, of those other men like Kirkpatrick – usually working away from the British coastal strongholds – is also only now coming to light. It’s taken its time, says Dalrymple, for two reasons: not only did the Victorians wanted to airbrush this more tolerant age out of the history books, but Indian nationalists also found little to celebrate in it.
Yet sizeable numbers of the British in India around 1790 preferred to marry into a completely different culture rather than their own. As Dalrymple discovered during his research, one of his own ancestors had done just that. So many British women, having shipped themselves out to India in search of officer husbands, failed to find them that they were known, like fishing fleets which failed to land a catch, as “returned empties”. Writing in the Calcutta Telegraph, General Stuart advised European women to wear saris but admitted even so that they would still be at a disadvantage as “a copper-coloured face [was] infinitely preferable to the pallid and sickly hue of the European fair”.
The fact that these interracial marriages were so widespread, he explains, is not because of any inherent British tolerance. “It’s a reflection of equality of power. Early on, the Mughals are all-powerful, then in the 19th century we were. You don’t get much mixing in either case. But when you’ve got parity of power, it becomes more common. And even as late as 1785, the Indian leader Tipu Sultan was still able to massively defeat the British – so much so that one in five Britons in India were held captive by him.”
When, after 1799, the balance of power comprehensively shifted, so did British attitudes to India. “The 19th century Brits are like 21st century Americans in every sense – evangelical, fundamentalist, all-powerful and full of a chilling imperial self-confidence.” Not only do mixed-race marriages starts to wane, but the children they produce start sliding down the social scale. Soon the best they can hope for under the Raj are minor jobs in the railways and the postal services.
If White Mughals is about the secret love between the British and India, Dalrymple’s next book will be about the divorce. The story of the Indian Mutiny, he insists, has still only been properly told from the British point of view. The Indian sources are abundant – but the 6,000 documents about it in the Delhi archives (“a complete goldmine”) are written in a complex late Mughal shikastah script that has defeated modern Indian researchers. However, with the help of Bruce Wannell, Dalrymple’s translator for much of the research in White Mughals, its secrets no longer look quite so safe.
The new book will be called The Last Mughal, and he talks about it with warm blasts of infectious enthusiasm. How it will start with the late flowering of Moghul culture under the Zafir II in Delhi, patron to two of the finest love poets India has ever produced, a last dazzling renaissance before the British imperium ground down their culture. How the 1857 mutineers proclaimed this refined 82-year-old poet-emperor as their leader, how the British besieged the city so ruthlessly that by the time they took it there was not one Indian living person in a city that 300,000 used to live in. “If it comes off, it will be like Stalingrad set in Renaissance Florence”, he says. It is impossible to disbelieve him.
So the last Mughal emperor, “this great descendant of Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur, who conquered India, Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, all of them”, is sent off into exile in Rangoon on a bullock cart like a common peasant. He is kept under house arrest and eventually is buried in a in a pauper’s grave.
“That’s how the book will open, with a burial in a common grave at midnight in the rain of a September night, with this plywood coffin, the cheapest possible, shoved into the earth. And the British officer supervising it reports on how they took care to replace the turf so that ‘there will be no surviving vestige to mark the remains of the last of the great Mughals’.”
It’s a good story, I say rather feebly.
He throws back his head and laughs.
“It’s a f***ing great story.”
Yet we are still not finished with White Mughals. Any writer who knows anything at all about the film industry knows that its promises cannot automatically be trusted. But next week Dalrymple will find out whether he has a deal that could overshadow even this week’s prizes.
He is, he says, “just one person’s decision” away from a $60 million movie deal from HBO. Director Udayan Prasad, who made Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic, wants to shoot the story as a four-part mini-series which then would be cut into a 90-minute film (Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander was apparently made in the same way).
If that doesn’t happen, Oscar-winning director Shekhar Kapur, who directed Elizabeth and Bandit Queen also wants to film the story. So does Amir Khan, producer of Bollywood’s biggest-ever film, Lagaan and one of the prime movers in the industry.
And today, he finds out whether he’s won two more prizes. The Hessell-Tiltman History Prize organised by International PEN, will be announced in London this morning, but Dalrymple won’t be there. Instead, he’ll be in St Malo with his wife, the artist Olivia Fraser, and three children, for a French literary award. No, he says, he doesn’t really know whether he’s won, but they’re paying for all the tickets.
Bottom line: If I were his bank manager, I’d put money on it.
• White Mughals by William Dalrymple is published by Flamingo
William Dalrymple’s website: www.williamdalrymple.com
William Dalrymple’s webpage on the Kirkpatrick Affair:
White Mughals Amazon.co.uk page:
White Mughals Wikipedia page:
Penguin US’s page on White Mughals:
White Mughals Amazon.com page:
William Dalrymple author page:
Frank McLynn: The Affair of Dalrymple’s White Mughals:
William Dalrymple’s brilliant account of an Indian Affair:
Anthony Gardner on the writing of White Mughals:
William Dalrymple on discovering his own Indian blood:
William Dalrymple video on the White Mughals of Delhi:
William Dalrymple on Kirkpatrick’s Affair: