Looking back with William Dalrymple
By A.H. Cemendtaur
On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, over two hundred people attended a performance of reading and music organized by the Berkeley Urdu Initiative at the UC Berkeley. Celebrated historian of late Mughal era, William Dalrymple, read excerpts from his book, “The Last Mughal.” Poetry, beautifully sung by vocalist Vidya Shah punctuated the reading. Shah was accompanied by tabla player Vishal Nagar.
What makes William Dalrymple a much sought after historian is the fact that deep at his core he is a storyteller. Dalrymple writes history books that grab you by your hand and take you back to the era he is describing; he makes you see colors and shapes, smell the aroma of fine foods and the stench of decomposing bodies, and hear the screams of people in distress and the late night music emanating from the royal palace.
In the introduction of the program, Professor Munis Faruqui, historian of Mughal India, said the evening was a part of the much larger program, the Berkeley's Urdu Initiative “launched to honor and extend Berkeley's decades long commitment to the study and dissemination of Urdu.”
Faruqui informed the audiences that since the program’s inception in November 2011, almost $130,000 have been raised; in the goal to create an endowment for lectureship in Urdu, UC Berkeley is providing a 3:1 support to the fund-raising effort.
Raka Ray, Chair of the Center for South Asian Studies, introduced William Dalrymple as a historian; a contributor to the NY Review of Books, the New Yorker, New Statesman, and Guardian; and as one of the founders of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
What followed next was a mesmerizing session of storytelling and music. Dalrymple entertained the audience describing the brief period of renaissance at the very end of the Mughal period, and the events around the war of 1857.
“In the 1640s when Milton was sitting in the drab monotone of Puritanical, Cromwellian England, writing ‘Paradise lost’, and was trying to think of an image of grandeur, he chose to have God take Adam on a tour of the future cities of Mughal India. Adam is escorted through Mughal Delhi, Lahore and Agra on his path through future wonders of humanity. For a man of Milton’s generation this was no exaggeration. Mughals by the 1640s controlled almost all of South Asia, almost all of Afghanistan, and a slither of modern Iran.
“By the accession of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1832, almost all of it had been lost. Delhi itself had been plundered three times since the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.
“One of the extraordinary features of this period is that unlike the periods of decline in other empires which normally leave little artistic trace, it is possible to argue that many of the most remarkable literary works to come out of Mughal India follow in the years of decline.
“The great renaissances of history usually take place during times of economic boom. What’s extraordinary about the renaissance that takes place in Delhi in period just before Zafar and during Zafar’s reign is that it takes place during a period of economic decline.
“This is the reason when the British turn up in Delhi in 1803, the first residents, the first ambassadors and diplomats the British sent up to Delhi, far from trying to impose their culture on the Mughal court are themselves colonized.
“David Ochterlony, first of the British residents, sets the tone. He entirely adopted an Indian way of life. He had no less than 13 Indian wives, each had her own elephant.
“By the 1840s, this early period of honeymoon between the British and the Mughals is fast wearing away; 1780 to 1800s, one in three British men were marrying Indian women and cohabiting in Anglo Mughal families; it went down to one in four, 1800- 1810; to one in five by 1830s; and by 1840s it is almost over—it is complete apartheid.
“Alongside the rise of the British power comes the rise of the evangelical Christianity and with it an entirely new spirit. (We see) evangelists using very extreme language; colonels of East India Company reading out the Ten Commandments to their troops.
“And the final moment happens on May 10, 1857 in Meerut, north of Delhi. The British had been using the same old rifle, the Brown Bess musket that had seen action against the Jacobites in 1745, and against Napoleon in Waterloo in 1815. It is still in service in 1850s in India. But after the British are completely defeated by the Afghans in the First Afghan War, there is a movement to change this old war horse of the British Army.
“In brought is the Enfield rifle. It is the age of breach loading guns and therefore the bullet comes pre-lubricated. It is greased in a mixture of pig-fat and cow-fat. And the sepoys are required to bite these bullets made in the Dum Dum arsenal north of Calcutta.
“It appears that the Indian version of this cartridge was produced with far too much grease that even the Europeans disliked chewing in their mouth--it was like eating raw Vaseline.
“On May 10, the sepoys refused to bite the bullet. They are led away in chains and sentenced to life imprisonment. That Sunday evening when the British are in the church, the sepoys rise up.
“On May 11, the day after the rebellion in Meerut, the first rebels arrive in Delhi. They slaughter not only the Europeans but also the converts to Christianity. And the uprising quickly assumes a religious and patriotic nationalist character.
“Of the 139,000 sepoys working for the British, 100,000 have thrown in their allegiance to the crown; 100,000 march to Delhi and seek service with the Mughal emperor.
“Zafar is now 82 and not at all the man to lead an uprising. The uprising sinks into chaos because there is no administrative machine to feed, pay and organize this massive army.
“By midsummer the uprising descends into (chaos); each successive regiment refuses to cooperate with the other; goes on its own to fight the British but then disappears into the city at night. All that is gained during the day is lost at night.
“Meanwhile British under John Lawrence in Lahore are recruiting an entirely new army--partly from Sikhs, but also from Pashtun tribesmen of Waziristan and Khyber.
“In August the new army moves from Lahore to take Delhi, on September 14. The new British army enters the city through the Kashmiri gate and begins a massacre of all fighting age males who are alive in the city.
“(This is how a 19-year old British officer described the capture of Delhi.)
‘The orders went out to shoot every soul. It was literally murder. I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately, but such a one I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again.
‘The women were all spared, but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered were most painful.
‘Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey-bearded man is brought out and shot before your very eyes, hardness be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference.’
“Having evicted the rebel army and having captured the emperor who, through his wife, does a deal with Hudson, the intelligence officer that he would be spared along with his wife and his son Jawan Bakht the British then head off out of the city in order to pursue the rebel army towards Lucknow.
“(This is how another British officer described the British leaving the Red Fort.}
‘The march was simply awful. Our advance guard consisting of cavalry and artillery had burst and squashed the dead bodies which lay swell to an enormous size in the Chandni Chowk. It was a ride that I don’t ever care to take again. Dead bodies were strewn about in all directions, in every attitude the death struggle had caused them to assume, in every stage of decomposition. In many cases the positions of the bodies were appallingly lifelike; some lay with their arms up lifted as if beckoning. The whole scene was weird and terrible, beyond description. The atmosphere was unimaginably disgusting, laden with the most noxious and sickening odors.’
“The emperor who surrendered is kept in the stables of the Red Fort. And there he is put on a show trial. A fantastical plot is drummed up. It is said that this uprising--which in reality has drawn in all sections of the society from India, ranging from Muslim noblemen to Hindu sepoys to tribesmen in Madhya Pradesh--is in fact an international Islamic conspiracy centered on Tehran. Zafar is being accused as the brilliant mastermind at the heart of this wicked Islamic conspiracy. And he is sentenced to life banishment in Rangoon.
“He would leave the city of his forefathers on a bullock cart. The last image we are left with before the last Mughal is deported is of an old man deprived of pen and paper still writing poetry with a charred stick on the white walls of the stable of the Red Fort.”
Has Dalrymple’s work put South Asia historians to shame? If Dalrymple can search primary sources in the National Archives of India to write history books, why can’t South Asians do the same? This train of thought brings us to another important factor in analyzing Dalrymple. William Dalrymple has indeed earned scholarship through hard work, but in marketing that scholarship he was assisted by two traits that he was born with: his race and his language. Among many legacies of the colonial period two still run deep and define our times: racism (a perceived hierarchy of importance of people, from fair-skinned to dark) and English as the language of authenticity. Were Dalrymple not Scottish and were he not writing in English, would his scholarship in Mughal era history have been appreciated as much as it is praised now? It is a tough question to answer.
Listen to the audio excerpts of the program here: