William Dalrymple

"White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 18,2003)

William Dalrymple shot into fame as a travel writer with his In Xanadu, a travel account he wrote when just twenty. A self-confessed Indophile, many of his subsequent works (City of Djinns, Age of Kali) were set in India. His latest book, White Mughals, revisits India, and among other things, is a detailed history of Deccan politics during the late eighteenth century.

The Deccan, located in South Central India, has as its premier base, the city of Hyderabad. Deccani culture is partly Mughal culture. The Mughals were Muslim rulers of India who imprinted on the region their unique stamp of mores and manners. Much of Mughal culture in India is a mix of Islamic and Hindu traditions and the Nawabi court of Hyderabad was a personification of this sophisticated mix.

In the late 1700's, there were three major indigenous power structures in India: the Maratha confederacy lead by the brilliant Nana Phadnavis, Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad. The East India Company, which came into India with the manifest desire of doing business in India, soon came to realize its political ambitions of carving up sections of India for itself. Around this time, the French with Napoleon at the helm, were a considerable might and knocking on India's doors. It was crucial to the British East India company officials that their interests in Hyderabad be carefully protected. The one man who could make or break their case in Hyderabad was the resident diplomat at the Nizam's court. At this crucial historical juncture, that official was the central focus of much of White Mughals, James Achilles Kirkpatrick.

James Kirkpatrick was a "White Mughal." He was sympathetic to local Hyderabadi interests and took up many local customs such as the smoking of the hookah (water pipe) and the wearing of Mughal attire. During a social occasion, Kirkpatrick happened to set his eyes upon the beautiful Khair-un-Nissa, great niece of the Prime Minister of Hyderabad. Khair, at the time, was already engaged to be married to a suitable high-placed Hyderabadi Muslim. This betrothal, however, was not one that Khair's women relatives approved of. In Kirkpatrick, they saw a way out of a potentially bad marriage for the young Khair. So it happened that at the age of fourteen, Khair began seeing James Kirkpatrick and soon became pregnant with his first child. By all indications, the two fell madly in love and continued a clandestine relationship.

This affair of the heart could not have come at a worse time for the East India Company officials and its relevance must be understood against the larger political frame. Company officials heard rumors about the affair and were afraid that such a relationship would create havoc in Hyderabad, a much-needed ally for the British. So it was that all manner of pressure was mounted on Kirkpatrick who refused to abandon his love, Khair, to the end.

James Kirkpatrick did manage to curry some favor with his employers by helping the Nizam defeat a major power, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, during the seige of Seringapatam. James's career was safe for now but couldn't ultimately survive the increasingly rascist attitudes evidenced by subsequent British high officials starting with Lord Wellesley. Kirkpatrick was a tolerant human being at a time when it became increasingly unfashionable to do so. His marriage to his love, Khair-un-Nissa, produced two children and a brief period of bliss. Unfortunately the relationship did not have a happy ending; both James and Khair died young and the family was torn horribly apart.

Dalrymple presents the story of Kirkpatrick and Khair extremely well; it is a page-turner. Of course, Kirkpatrick was evidence of a much larger phenomenon--the White Mughals. Around the late 1700's many British officials in India took up local customs and "turned native." It is important to remember that many arrived in India's shores, very young in their late teen years. In a sense, they were more open to new ideas and concepts of cultural exchange and assimilation.

White Mughals is the product of five exhaustive years of research for Dalrymple and his scholarship shines in these pages. It also reflects a maturing of sorts for the travel writer and historian. The ultimate beneficiary of this handsome work will be India's Deccan, whose history has been ill documented for a while. Dalrymple has created a history lesson that is immensely readable and also increasingly relevant.

At a time when the word "empire" and phrases such as "clash of civilizations" are being bandied about again, much can be learned from the example of the White Mughals. As Dalrymple says in his wonderful book: "As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism, and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again."

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About the Author:

William Dalyrmple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He has received critical as well as popular acclaim for his books covering his travels in Asia and the Middle East. He began his writing career after reading a newspaper article about the opening of the Karakoram Highway between Pakistan and China. The report prompted him to realize his childhood dream of following in the footsteps of Marco Polo along Asia's Silk Road. He set out with his companion, Laura, through remote regions of Iran, Pakistan, and China, eventually reaching his goal: Xanadu, which was the subject of his first book. After his trek along the Silk Road, William Dalrymple went to India, where he lived in Delhi, on and off, for about five years. This experience was the basis for his second book.

Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and in 2002 was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his "outstanding contribution to travel literature." He presented The Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, which won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting. White Mughals recently won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, and was shortlisted for the PEN History Award.

He is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They divide their time between London and Delhi.

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