Using Fictional Techniques to Write History | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 18, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:39 AM, November 18, 2017

William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal:

Using Fictional Techniques to Write History

The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple is the most engrossing book that I've read recently.  A sprawling book, 486 pages long with Glossary, Notes, Bibliography and Index that go on for another 100 pages, it depicts the tragic life of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862). It is divided into 12 large chapters and has a 26 page Introduction. It reveals Dalrymple's sympathetic understanding of the historical phase that ended the 332 years of Mughal rule in India and began the transition of state power from the British East India Company to the British Government.  Published by Penguin Books in 2006, this book has color and black-and-white photographs as well as pictures of historical figures such as King Zafar and his influential wife The Nawab Zinat  Mahal Begum (1821-82), along with images of Mirza Asadullah Khan—'Ghalib' (1797-1869), the most noted poet of the time, and others. A picture depicts graphically the demolition of the Kashmiri Gate of Delhi by the British army on 14 September, 1857 even as the sepoys try helplessly to defend the wall from above. That was the last bastion to fall, and the city of Delhi afterwards went to the British Raj.

In depicting the Sepoy Rebellion and Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Dalrymple avoids using the now controversial words 'mutiny' and 'rebellion' and uses the word “uprising”. The Bengali word for such phenomenon is obbhuthan, and this I think is the appropriate expression. Dalrymple has also used the word 'King' persistently over the more accepted title of 'Emperor'  which we're accustomed to seeing as the adjective associated with Bahadur Shah Zafar. Also noteworthy is how he chooses to call Bahadur Shah by his surname 'Zafar' throughout the book in a manner that agrees more with the western form of address than with the usage in currency in the subcontinent.

Such usages, however, are understandable. Since Queen Victoria was often grandly called an Empress, Zafar, for his subordinate status then, could only be a King1 Dalrymple seems to have found that title alright, though to our Bengali sensibility the acceptable adjective for Zafar is 'Samrat' (emperor) rather than 'Raja' (king).

Dalrymple has a knack for ingraining his historical narrative with a fictional brush in a  manner that is delightful.  The description of Zafar's trial is where we get to know that the octogenarian emperor is so senile that he is well above the requirement imposed to listen to the proceedings drawn against him. He was then being portrayed by the trial committee as the mastermind of a kind of fundamentalist Islamism emerging globally. So, when, Major Harriott, the prosecutor, asked him a question on his possible links with Persia, the old man was startled and wanted to know “whether the Persians and the Russians were the same people” (p. 438).

Ghalib is quoted generously by Dalrymple from his Dastanbuy, and one would know that the emperor and the poet had the same feelings of disgust about the sepoys who had swarmed  the palace to pledge to the emperor that they would sweep away the British army from the Ridge, where they stood on siege, if the emperor would bestow his blessings on them. After much hesitation, the emperor agreed to support them, but in due course, it became clear that the sepoys were nothing but men who preferred plundering and looting inside the city to driving away the English from their encampment. According to Dalrymple, siding with the sepoys was the first vital mistake made by the emperor, but at the end of the Uprising's journey, on 14 September 1857, when the English had finally stormed the Fort, the sepoys had urged him to support them one final time and lead an attack with himself in the front. The old man put on his war dress and embarked on the mission in his palanquin. But his Prime Minister and personal physician, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, came rushing to counsel him to turn back as the English victory was imminent and he would be killed. The emperor preferred to listen to the Hakim to the disappointment of thousands of now newly-motivated sepoys. According to Dalrymple, this was the second crucial mistake committed by the emperor. If Zafar had continued to be aggressive, the already faltering British army could have been defeated and the Mughal Empire could have entered a new phase of its history.  Hakim can therefore be called a traitor, but the more vicious traitor was the Emperor's eldest son Mirza Fakhru's father-in-law, Mirza Ilahe Bakhsh, who had played a Mir Zafar-like role against the Emperor. He was called the “Traitor of Delhi” even by the English.

Captain William Hodson, on the other hand, was a competent English soldier. He arranged secretly with Zinat Mahal Begum so that she, the Emperor and her son, the heir-apparent, Prince Mirza Zawan Bakht, would be spared even if in a trial they were found guilty. Hodson died soon after, but in spite of the feelings of the trial committee that the old King should be court-martialed to death, they decided to respect Hodson's arrangement. From Calcutta Lord Canning now advised them that the King and his remaining entourage should be sent to exile in Burma. Mirza Ghalib, on the other hand, remained the only royalist to go unscathed. When Colonel Burn asked him if he was a Muslim, he replied that he was only half a Muslim, because he drank wine but ate no pork! Burn asked him then why he hadn't meet him before in front of the Ridge, Ghalib, who was a fashionable man and always appeared in public in his best attire, replied that the rank and status he enjoyed in society demanded that he come on a palanquin with four escorts. But the escorts had deserted the palanquin out in the street and so he wasn't able to come!  Then he showed his poem on Queen Victoria to Burn, who subsequently let him go. Ghalib, must have considered himself very fortunate in being allowed to live, because the victorious English were then out to take revenge for the killings carried out by the sepoys in Kanpur and Delhi.

The basic strategy deployed by Dalrymple's in his narrative is to extract big chunks from his sources in between his own encompassing descriptions. But through the quoted passages Delhi life of the mid-nineteenth century comes to life. What is more rewarding for the reader is to get first-hand observation of the duress undergone by both British and Indian citizens during the four months of the Uprising. Their sufferings took place in two phases. At the outbreak of the Uprising, it's the English men and women who suffered and died; after the capture of Delhi, it was the turn of the rebels and city dwellers to suffer or get killed by the British. Dalrymple notes that while the sufferings of the English had been recorded by survivors in letters and diaries, particularly by the ones written by the English ladies that were eventually preserved in archives, the recording of the plight of Indians is scant, and, therefore, has to be imagined. The more significant argument developed by Dalrymple is that the British themselves had termed the counter-attack as revenge. It was spearheaded by the cruelest of officers, Brigadier General John Nicholson (1821-57). The Victorian Evangelist Padre Rotton explained it happily as being ordained by God. But Rotton's overenthusiastic response was matched by that of Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, the editor of Dihli Urdu Akbhar, who envisioned that the Uprising would sound the bells of the ending of the infidels' (kafirs) rule in India.

Dalrymple's shows with clarity how the seeds of communalism were implanted through the events of the Uprising. From Baqar's editorials it is clear that British supremacy was viewed by the Muslims as a sign of the way Islam was being crushed by Christianity. To them the Uprising was tantamount to religious war, or Jihad. But like Zafar and Ghalib, Baqar also got disillusioned with the sepoys.

Another interesting point that Dalrymple stresses is that this Wahabbi mindset based in Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanaautawi's Deoband Madrassa may have evolved into the militant psychology propounded by Al Qaeda today (and we can also include the IS in that eveolutionary process). But Dalrymple's alert eyes don't miss out on an underlying paradox. The Uprising originated in Meerut because of sepoys who were predominantly high-caste Hindus, Mangal Pandey being the major figure in this context. They had revolted because the newly-introduced Enfield rifles needed its cartridge to be opened by one's teeth, which were greased, as it was rumored, with cow and pork fat. The cow, of course, is holy to the Hindus and the Muslims consider the pig unclean.

But when the British took back the city after four months of siege, they identified the Muslims as the real culprits while the Hindus were let off lightly. So, while at first the Uprising was a united Hindu-Muslim Indo-Islamic movement against the Christian invaders, later with English prejudice increasing against the Muslims, the Hindus became the favored community, while the Muslims fell out of favor. We can say that it was from here the “divide and rule” policy got its roots. The subcontinent was eventually partitioned in 1947 on the basis of the two-nation theory.

Against this communal development in the subcontinent, Dalrymple's adulation of Zafar becomes significant. Zafar might have been a failed monarch resembling King Lear, but he was the last symbol of the civilization the Mughal Empire had helped create. Zafar's decision to stop cow-killing on the day of Idul Adha is one example of how tolerant he was as a ruler: “Id, Zafar told them in a 'decided and angry tone that the religion of the Musalmen [sic] did not depend upon the sacrifice of cows'” (p.82). Today this kind of decision would be impossible to take. One of Dalrymple's passages sums up Zafar's equable nature well: “One of Zafar's verses says explicitly that Hinduism and Islam 'share the same essence', and his court lived out this syncretic philosophy, and both celebrated and embodied this composite Hindu-Muslim Indo-Islamic civilization at every level” (p. 80-81).

The characters and events of Dalrymple's book are drawn from historical writings and documents, yet it has a way of inducing imaginative responses from its readers. Of course, the reader is perusing a history book, but he all the time feels that he is reading fiction—almost a thriller. Dalrymple, in fact, has used fictional techniques to write a book on history. So, for example, when Ghalib and Zauq pose as rival court poets, Ghalib's sharp retort at a comparison between them is revealing of the poet's immense self-confidence: “How can Sahbai be a poet? He has never tasted wine, nor has he ever gambled; he has not been beaten with slippers by lovers, nor has he once seen the inside of a jail” (p. 41). But that is not the point to be noted here; the point is Dalrymple wisely thought that this anecdote could be included in his book.   


Mohit Ul Alam is a professor of English and the Vice Chancellor (designate) of Eastern University.

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