The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple

23 January 2008
A quarter of the way through…
…and it’s all just about to kick off: there’s been a massacre in – hang on – Meerut. The Hindu sepoys have risen up, brought beyond tolerable limits by increasingly insensitive British demands. They were being ordered to bite off cartridge caps smeared with unclean grease; they were being ordered to sail overseas – a no-no for Hindus – and a sepoy unit were punished for refusing by being forcibly marched to a posting that led to the deaths of most of them; lower-caste sepoys were being promoted because the British found them more amenable and less fussy…. All this despite the warnings by old British hands who had been far more tolerant of Indians of all religions, even integrated entirely into their lifestyle: the White Mughals.

Dalrymple has spent 140 pages convincing us that the Brits had it coming. Earlier in the 19th Century there had been a mutual tolerance, mutual respect – within the context of an understanding that ‘the Company’ were in de facto command. But increasingly even the ceremonial powers of the Mughals were being nibbled away. In the end the last of them, Zafar, could not even depend on having a successor, never mind being given the choice as to who that might be. His cosy little enclave, with its genuine flowering of culture (according to Dalrymple, and definitely in the eyes of the Indians), was effectively under threat of destruction. It’s no wonder the mutineers, as Dalrymple told us in the introduction, chose him as their figurehead. If he was an innocent King Lear, they were Cordelia’s rescuing army.

The first chapters have been like a novel. Letters and other documents have got us inside the heads of the participants. Subtle shades of tolerance or prejudice are carefully described and we are given a proper sense of the shapes of people’s lives. We feel as though we know what’s going on. And, of course, who the bad guys are.

27 January
Approximately the half-way point…
…and almost everybody is behaving badly. There are killing sprees taking place on both sides… but, in the chapter I’ve just read, the fact that the sepoys started it is being used by the Brits to justify their own atrocities. As in, I was willing to treat these people as equals, but just look how they’ve behaved. So, during the first days of the revolt all white people, or Christian converts (or whoever) were fair game for the sepoy death squads; in return, British soldiers are now in the business of stringing up innocent Indians. Bread delivered late? Hang the baker.

What’s always so disturbing is how quickly it seems to reach this point. In Anthony Beevor’s Berlin the Russians treated Germans like this (or allowed their subordinates to do so, just as the British officers are allowing pointless killings in 1857). Then, the justification was that the Germans had been indiscriminate in the atrocities they had perpetrated earlier in the war. And on the news today there are reports of how ‘youths’ in Kenya are going into villages and killing whoever they feel like. We’re very fond of referring to this or that part of Africa as a basket case. Kenya, one of the few countries to escape this catch-all description until the rigged elections seems to be going the way of so many other places. Like Delhi, Stalingrad, Berlin….

And as for The Last Mughal…. It’s not going to get any better. We’ve already been introduced to various nutters on the British side, including a certain Hodson who was considered too extreme and unreliable – not to say criminal – before the Mutiny. We knew when Dalrymple first introduced them that the only reason could be that they’d be back, with their habit of taking no prisoners, or personally carrying out summary executions (i.e. hacking down whoever they felt like)…. And the next chapter’s called ‘Blood for blood’. Oh dear.

29 January
Half-way through ‘The turning tide’
Well, we’ve had ‘Blood for blood’…. The trajectory of the book seems too plain, as if you don’t need to read what’s coming next. From time to time stuff happens, or a new personage comes along and/or fades from view. Like the only proper general the sepoys ever get, Bakht Khan. He’s treated like a star football manager to start with – but then gets booed off the park when the team doesn’t immediately win every match. If only…. He was within an inch of overcoming the Brits on the Ridge, but only the Brits realised.

And the trajectory? Mutineers carry all before them; everybody joins in with looting and high living; the Brits are ejected, but a force returns and camps out on the Ridge; the mutineers send waves of attacking forces at the Brits, but they have no trained leaders and never learn from their mistakes; the Brits see everything as proof of the inferiority of the ‘natives’ – to go with their inhuman cruelty; enter Nicholson the psycho, cheered on by everybody as he promises no mercy to anybody. God is on our side, and it’s certainly not going to get any better than it is. Worse.

A quotation from someone or other (not Nicholson himself), extreme but not beyond the pale for the time: ‘Hindoo and Moslem have proclaimed their caste and their religion to the world in a mass of fiendish cruelty that stands unparalleled in the world’s history. The punishment about to be inflicted will likewise be equivalent: Justice is Mercy – “blood for blood” will be the watchword.’ You bet. But there were some who could see Nicholson’s methods for what they were: ‘Such cruelties must tell against us in the long run, and because these men have done the same to us is no reason that we should emulate them. Kill them by all means by hanging or shooting the really guilty, but the innocent should be spared.’

Meanwhile Zafar, only wanting the quiet life but beset by the invasion of sepoys who want him for their figurehead…. Dalrymple compares him to King Lear, racked by forces far too big for him to cope with. Gulp. (Actually, I compared him to King Lear before. Flipping heck.)

4 February
Half-way through ‘City of the Dead’.
Not enough dead for the Brits, who are stringing up dozens of Indians at a time. And they’re not too fussy about the length of the drop: if they squirm for a while, doing the Pandie hornpipe, well that just adds to the fun. As before, there are a few voices raised in protest – ok, not exactly raised, but muttering in the background: some letter-writers are frankly appalled. But the norm is, they had it coming and, well, God might be firm but he’s fair. Yeh, sure. Before this chapter we had ‘Blood for Blood’, and buckets of it. There were some parts, particularly letters or reports written by soldiers who participated, which are almost literally unbearable: just to read them brings a sort of misery at the crapness of humanity. Dalrymple refers routinely to the murders carried out by the Brits, behaviour which two or three generations later would be classed as war crimes: all 40 or 50 civilians in a single house murdered, boys or old men run through with a bayonet….

But we also get the background to all this. These particular atrocities take place in – and I can’t think of a better phrase – the heat of battle. Dalrymple, through eye-witness accounts, took us into the city on the first day of the British attack. I can’t think of a better account of the sheer nakedness of hand-to-hand fighting, of the visceral passion that sustains it… and of the black panic that can follow when the passion’s spent and nothing’s yet safe. Some participants, still in shock about the loss of wives and children in the first days of the Mutiny, seem to deliberately dehumanise themselves: whilst noting the viciousness of what they do, they express satisfaction. (When was the phrase first coined that all’s fair in war? Whenever it was, we’re still seeing how people believe it in the 21st Century.)

And now Hodson’s captured Zafar. He was the nutter we first met chapters back, and he’s outlived Nicholson the outright psycho. He’s acting almost as a law unto himself – but doesn’t gets criticised for killing two of Zafar’s sons and a grandson, no questions asked; people do disapprove – but only of his promise to Zafar that he’ll be safe from execution. I’m speechless – just as Dalrymple wants me to be, I suppose.

7 February
To the end
The last chapter is about the tying up of loose ends. Any member of the royal family still free? Arrest them. Any bits of the Red Fort still standing? Demolish it. Anything valuable left in Delhi? We’ll have that…. And of course there’s the drawn-out process of Zafar’s trial that even the British can see is a charade, and the drawn-out process of the final years of his life, and his family’s. The dead hand of British officialdom is on it all, particularly in the way their demonisation of the Muslims divided the two communities and led to the eventual rise of a new Hindu elite. Meanwhile the destruction of a whole culture is as bureaucratically well-managed as anything the Nazis managed 80 years later. (The language of racial bigotry is almost identical: Dalrymple quotes an 1868 textbook in which a single photograph demonstrates how it is ‘hardly possible to conceive features more essentially repulsive’ than this archetypal Muslim.)

But it isn’t European ethnic cleansing that closes this history, it’s the rise of what we’re now urged not to call militant Islamism. In a few paragraphs Dalrymple aims to sketch a timeline leading from Delhi in 1857 through the beginnings of the Muslim/Hindu divide and the beginnings of the fundamentalist madrases to the eventual rise of Al Qaida. The way he describes it seems far-fetched, and he rather foolishly decides to locate ‘aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East’ firmly in the present day. He hasn’t really earned this generalisation, and he knows it: he brings on the cavalry, in the form of Edmund Burke on history repeating itself. If you aren’t sure you’ve convinced the reader, always end with a quotation.

Footnote. Today good old Rowan Williams has caused a furore – no other word will cover it – by suggesting that in our multicultural society there may be room, in certain circumstances, for Muslim communities to solve local problems through an application of Sharia law. Nothing particularly unusual in that: it’s the sort of leftfield outside the box stuff we’ve come to expect from the turbulent priest. But the reaction – within three hours leaders of all three major parties are squelching the idea and the Sun editor is interviewed on radio to explain why this will be front-page news tomorrow – has been as predictable as anything in The Last Mughal. The ill-advised thing was to use that phrase ‘Sharia law’, which in current demonology means stoning rape victims and cutting off the hands of thieves. What did the Neo-cons in the US say? You’ve got to have an enemy – and, in Britain in 2008, we know who that is.

18 February
Postscript
Following a book group discussion I’m persuaded that Dalrymple gives too one-sided a picture. He keeps telling us throughout the book how detailed his research is, how during the writing he had access to thousands of documents on both sides…. So why did we have so much from the British side, particularly (in that novelistic way) from letters that let us see the inner workings of their minds, and so little from the Indians? The sepoys didn’t like the lack of understanding – lack of a willingness to understand – on the British side; so they killed everybody. Obviously it wasn’t like that… but, really, Dalrymple isn’t the one to give us the details. It’s as if he’s so Delhi-fixated anything that happens anywhere else becomes simply a sort of ‘given’. Sepoys: fed up; slash, burn. Brits: surprised; 300 pages of reaction. Odd, really, for the great Indophile to treat so casually the Indian mindset that led to it all.

Bu…ut. I’m ok with it. I have my own agenda, I suppose, and that’s to do with finding evidence of British Imperialist awfulness. I tend to look for stories that allow me to say, well, whatever atrocities there are going on in the world now, we’ve been just as bad in the past.

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