February 18, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Mughal : The Fall of a Dynasty


The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (Hardcover)
by William Dalrymple (Author)



By Kusum Choppra

The Last Mughal, by William Dalyrmple has undoubtedly made very much thicker by pages of compliments, but what about its rendering of the story of 1857 and the Last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar?

Of the 486 page story, how much is actually about Bahadur Shah Zafar and his environs? The bias would be obvious with a simple page count in each chapter which reveals that against 223 pages which tell the Indian story; almost 263 give the British viewpoint.

There is an amazing amount of detail about life for the British in 1857, with elaborate flourishes of verbal embroidery; comparatively very little of the Indian overall picture. Yes, all the possible negatives of the Mughal court are lovingly delineated. But it is difficult to digest that amongst all those thousands of princelings, nawabs and adventurers etc who descended on Delhi in 1857, there was not one single person of any military or other type of leadership or vision? Was that actually so?

Despite the loud claims of exhaustive research from new sources, the only new references to the ordinary people of Delhi are one sentences references to the horse seller, the prostitute, the dhobi and other Delhi locals.

The records of the Mughal court itself, which would be an obvious reference point, seem to be absent. When did the Mughal courts do away with records and daily diaries, which are endemic in any Indian court?

The book is totally Delhi centric. The other 1857 developments are barely mentioned in passing, whether the greased cartridge flashpoints, the mass upsurges in central India and elsewhere. Even Kanpur and Lucknow get short shrift in the telling of the Delhi story. When has India been so rift as to be totally unaware of what is happening elsewhere?

There is much use of verbal embroidery, beautiful or gruesome as the case may be. For the Indian viewpoint, heavy reliance on Ghalib, Zahir Dehlavi, Hakim Assunullah Khan primarily. Poor Ghalib has been so vilified as a luxury loving traitor, a self-serving dodder. Was he really? One wonders about his reputation and the reactions of the legion of admirers of his works. How much of this is true?

And what about the central figure of the book, the Last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar? Where is the word picture of the man who, by the author’s own admission, instigated a cultural Renaissance in his court, to counter the steady erosion of his powers? How did he grow up? What were the influences that shaped him? Within and without his immediate family? His Hindu mother? Others? His various wives, sweethearts and concubines etc? Others in his circle and harem?

His schooling? Mughal princes are not brought up in a vacuum. There is a definite system of schooling in the classical and military tradition etc which shapes the mind. Princely upbringing and scholarship which could produce a poet and an inspiration for Renaissance would obviously generate character, which is not visible in Dalyrmple’s Zafar.

This poor creature is seen as a shifty, lazy dodger of the worst order. Worse, his only claim to note, for which he is still remembered today, his poetry is contested. With the literary prowess of both Zafar and Ghalib denigrated, the book seems to challenge accept known history. Will some historian please enlighten us on the charge of the British author/historian?

There is no information of Zafar’s long life before he came to the throne. Was the Mughal court that devoid of any developments of any sort for those sixty years before its crown prince finally came to the throne?

Coming to the final chapters of the trial and the Burma years, is one to infer that Davies wrote only one letter during those ix years in Burma, hence the paucity of any material on the Burma exile. The trial has been well recorded, but little comes through in the book. Was it because exhaustive coverage would have been totally damning of the British?

Forgive the journalistic bent, one wonders why this book was written at all, if facts were not be presented ?

You can email the author at kusumchoppra@yahoo.com

No comments: