The Last Mughal

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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In The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple evokes a lost world: old Delhi before the Indian Mutiny and the ensuing destruction of much of the venerable capital of the Mughals. Dalrymple’s depiction of the city is unabashedly nostalgic. We hear the plash of fountains in courtyards, the chant of Urdu poetry, the calls of street sellers; we see the gaudy colors and smell the spices of the east. It’s a marvelous sensory experience, marred only by the one sound that we never do seem to hear: the ring of truth.

There is no shortage of books on the Indian Mutiny, although I have to confess that I have not read very many of them. Few can be as well written as The Last Mughal, which focuses closely on the pathetic story of the last of the emperors of the dynasty of Babur and Akbar, Bahadur Shah II. Progressively hemmed in by the British, deprived first of all remnants of power, then even of his title of emperor (the British called him “the King of Delhi”), and then ultimately even of control of his personal jewels, this indecisive old man found himself at the center of a terrible civil war.

The revolting sepoys – the mercenary soldiers of the British East India Company – besieged and captured Delhi in May 1857. The British population was massacred, the latest in a series of atrocities up and down the North Indian plain. The aged Mughal emperor (Dalrymple usually refers to him as Zafar, the name under which he wrote poetry of still-controverted merit) hesitated – and then threw in his lot with the mutineers.

How Zafar made this choice – what precisely happened – has never been well understood. Dalrymple deserves enormous credit for the painstaking archival work he has done to bring new insight into a till now poorly understood story, and to bring to immediate life characters most of us had glimpsed only in outline. Reviewers who know much more about Indian history than I do agree that Dalrymple has cast light on many previously obscure events and solved some important outstanding mysteries. So: good job!

But one problem: Dalrymple is a relentlessly present-minded writer. He draws a series of very heavy-handed analogies between the events of the 1850s and those of today. In Dalrymple’s telling, narrow-minded and insensitive evangelicals, allied with aggressive ideological imperalists, provoked a “clash of civilizations” that propelled India’s Muslims toward jihadist radicalism – and provoked them into a regrettable but understandable war of massacre.

Dalrymple correctly stresses that the core of the sepoy army was Hindu, not Muslim. He acknowledges that as the Mutiny prolonged itself, it took on more and more of the character of a narrowly sectarian Islamic insurrection – one reason it ultimately failed of course.

Yet all this realism does not prevent him from repeatedly fulminating against Victorian “Islamophobia.” And what about the religious passions of the Mutineers? Were they a phobia? If not, why not?

This is apologetic history, in which the historian not only takes sides about the past – that’s inevitable I suppose – but invokes the past in order to take sides in the present – which is very surely not.

By coincidence, I notice that the current New Yorker offers a gently chiding review of another apparently similarly apologetic history, David Levering Lewis’ God’s Crucible (a book I have not read and almost certainly won’t). Reviewer Joan Acocella complains:

If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today.

I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practicedÑfar-flung and transacted with moneyÑleads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleadingÑof which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.

The Last Mughal is a more subtle and rewarding book than God’s Crucible sounds to be. But the same strictures apply: It is special pleading that leaves one wondering where truth really lies. Despite the Urdu poetry contests, the peacock feathers, and the cardoman seeds, I wonder whether the Mughal empire was really experienced as positively by its subjects as Dalrymple would wish us to believe. Yes, the imagination is dazzled by the magnificent pearls and diamonds – but how exactly were they paid for, anyway?

And when we condemn the British for their imperialism, are we not perhaps importing into the past an Indian national consciousness that did not exist at the time? From the point of view of their subjects, were the Mughals really any less foreign than the British?

I end this book much better informed about a vital chapter in Indian history, a chapter that still casts a long and unhappy shadow over India’s present. But I am not sure I am any wiser – indeed I am left wondering whether the admixture of much that is argumentative, polemical and false has not poisoned a book where so much is wise, fair, and true.

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