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White Mughals

White Mughals

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

This latest publication from one of Britain’s most vibrant modern writers,   peeks into a world long-covered up. White Mughals deals with the cultural fusion of the British experience in India that occurred at some startling levels before the 1857 uprising and, more specifically, in the pre-Victorian period. It highlights a world about which few know today: when Scots could lounge around in tartan turbans; when Britons grew up speaking Urdu as their first language and identified with India better than, “this green and pleasant land”; when the gardens of the British Residency at Hyderabad grew a bizarre concoction of mangoes as well as oranges and strawberries; and when many gentlemen of the Raj kept harems, if not actually Indian wives. For up and coming young East India men it was not uncommon to have Indian blood, and in many cases it could be an advantage during certain sensitive diplomatic occasions. At other times, however, such apparent mixed loyalties worried certain circles of the British administration (mainly for security reasons) and so some such love affairs with India became ill fated.

 It is in this period that William Dalrymple’s protagonists appear, playing out parts in this historical biographical work that most muses would be hard-pushed to dream up; and with elements of sadness that most trashy-novelists would be unable to evoke. Within our meeting of two worlds, we are focused on a tragic love story, which Dalrymple compares to MadameButterfly. And an opera it is.  We meet James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad and a successful diplomat with an outstanding record.

 His father and brother had both preceded not only his career in India, but also his penchant for Indian women. James Kirkpatrick, however, took this all a step further, like many of his colleagues, and developed a great interest in Mughal society to the extent that he was oft-seen wearing the clothing of a “Mussulman,” and had  developed a close relationship with the Nizam of Hyderabad. He also kept a string of Indian women. Most notably, he later converted to Islam, his dedication to which was seen  in his willingness to go through the circumcision operation, which in those days could be a dangerous process.

His opposite number appears in the form of a young Indian noble woman of Persian ancestry, and not only that, but of Sayyed blood (descended from the Prophet Muhammad (s). Her name was Khair un-Nissa, of the Shushtari clan, and she spent many a day kept in purdah (seclusion) due to her lineage. She was the greatniece of the Diwan of Hyderabad and lived with her mother and grandmother in the family home, her father having died. She had also been promised to a local nobleman, to which she, her mother and grand-mother all vehemently objected.

 In 1798, at the wedding of Khair un-Nissa’s older sister, James Achilles Kirkpatrick and the modest lady by accident glimpsed each other across a crowded room and fell in love. What follows is somewhat less romantic, but involves intrigue and political manipulation and manoeuvering. What is most notable, however, is the fact that the love affair that ensued between the two was initiated by Khair un- Nissa and the meddling ladies of her household. Her mother, it seems, practically frog-marched her over to the Residency on the pretext of visiting some of the ladies there.

 The relationship, however, is not free of obstacles. Khair un-Nissa’s grand-father is outraged by the romantic occurrence and threatens to raise the people of Hyderabad against the British due to the affront to the family honour. He also tries to persuade William Dalrymple’s ancestral kinsman, James Dalrymple (himself married to a certain Mooti Beghum Dalrymple), to keep the two of them apart. We see the British and the family intervening in what would otherwise have been an innocent love story. At a time when Napoleon was setting his sights on the Sub-Continent after initial successes in Egypt, and when Anglo-French rivalry in Hyderabad was already in full-swing, any further disruption in the British relationships with the Nizam would not have been welcomed.

 Moreover the affair offended some local Indian protocols, fuelled by the endogamous attitude of the Indian Sayyed class at the time and their belief in maintaining the purity of the Prophetic line.

James Kirkpatrick finds his conduct being ‘investigated’ while forbidden from seeing Khair un-Nissa ever again. Meanwhile the scandal of the relationship hits the gossip columns of the Calcutta chattering classes. He somehow manages to keep hold of his position but also manages to make a number of enemies.

 The tale later takes another tragic twist when the children of the marriage find themselves shipped off to England to have their names changed and their souls baptised, thereafter to be cut off from their maternal family. They do not find out what happened to their mother until forty years on when, by a quirk of fate, the daughter (now known as Kitty Kirkpatrick and a one-time love interest of a young Thomas Carlyle) manages to re-connect with her maternal grandmother. The two start a moving correspondence, which William Dalrymple describes as, “letters of great beauty and intense sadness as the story emerged of lives divided by prejudice and misunderstanding, politics and fate.”

 This is not a romantic novel, but a factual account of a piece of the histories of both India and Britain.

A social history about multiculturalism, a time when races and religions intermarried and intermixed fairly freely before darker times. William Dalrymple contextualises the story with general accounts of similar tales, found not just in the India Office library, but also in the archives referring to the Middle East and in those of any of  the other former contacts between Britain and the rest of the world.

 There are tales of men and women being absorbed into the native tribes of the Americas, as much as into the Ottoman or Mughal courts. There seems to have been a general trend of “crossing over” in the history of European encounters with ‘the East,’ which dated from the Portuguese arrival in Goa in 1540 to the era of Victorian Britain. Examples range from the, “Ottoman general known as ‘Ingliz Mustapha’: in fact a Scottish Campbell who had embraced Islam and joined the Janissaries” to “a dragoman encountered by some English travellers first in Constantinople, then later in Aden… described as ‘a Turk, but a Cornishman born’.”

 Although we mostly hear about the British “conquest of India,” White Mughals recalls a colourful and relatively stable period in the Anglo-Indian encounter and offers a key-hole into, “a far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story: the Indian Conquest of the European imagination.” More than this, it challenges the assumptions we have all made about a number of aspects of this period in history, not least the caricatured image of the British in India: “the narrowminded, ramrod-backed sahib in a sola topee with bristling moustache… raising a disdainful nose at both the  people and the culture of India.” Rather, we see a large number of Europeans quite willing to embrace India, its people, its culture, and its religions.

In conclusion, as Dalrymple himself wrote in The Guardian, “It suggests that 200 years before Zadie Smith made it on to the telly and multiculturalism became a buzzword politically correct enough to wake Norman Tebbit and the Tory undead from their coffins at party conferences, the India of the East India Company was an infinitely more culturally, racially and religiously mixed place than modern Britain can even dream of being.”

More information about this and other of his books can be found on William Dalrymple’s website


Review: Isla Rosser-Owen