The colonisers colonised
William Dalrymple talks about what he set out to do in his best-selling White Mughals, an enchanting account of an 18th Century love affair that crosses religious, social and political boundaries. An exclusive interview with MUKUND PADMANABHAN.
William Dalrymple ... a fascination with India.
William Dalrymple's White Mughals is a fascinating account of an extraordinary and passionate love affair between James Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad, and Khair un-Nissa, the young granddaughter of a senior Mughal official. The story of their relationship is tied up with controversy, intrigue and courtly conspiracy, but Dalrymple employs it to illustrate a common, but overlooked, phenomenon namely, the widespread practice in the pre-Victorian era of British men acquiring Indian wives and becoming culturally assimilated.
In this best-selling work of narrative history, Dalrymple distinguishes these White Mughals, who bore no resemblance at all to those British colonials who came to India around or after the mid-19th Century. In doing so, he defends the early British Indophiles, who represent a welcome amalgam of cultures and who were once living proof that the gap between East and West could be reconciled.
White Mughals suggests there were two periods in colonial India an early period where the British were willing to integrate with local culture and a later period where their attitude smacked of contempt or disdain.
IT is not as simple as that, but yes, you do see a major shift of attitudes of the British towards India between 1815 and 1840. An important reason was the rise of evangelical Christianity. In the latter half of the 18th Century, Christianity, if defined in Indian terms, was Sufistic. The dominant form of Christianity was deism and you found people like Alexander Pope saying God could be recognised by many names. There is a complete ease with the idea that God had many names, many forms. That Hinduism, Islam and Judaism all had the elements of truth or that Christianity was not the only or absolute truth.
However, by the early 1800s, you are getting the rise of evangelical Christianity which preaches a Victorian morality and gives birth to the obsessive idea that Christianity is the only possible form of salvation and that it is the duty of all God fearing Christians to convert the heathen. Internally, in Britain it means the clearing of the brothels and that sort of thing. Externally, it means the rise of the missionaries, which totally transforms attitudes to Indian religions. As I said, this happens somewhere between 1815 and 1840.
But the British were also getting more powerful by then. Didn't the changing power equations also alter perceptions and promote a less favourable attitude towards India and its culture?
It has a lot to do with this. One factor was the complete change in morality which happens in Britain and is exported to India. The second thing is that in the late 18th Century, the Indian courts seemed both powerful and sophisticated. In 1783 and 1784, Tipu inflicts a series of crushing defeats on the armies of the East India Company. A year later, the British lose Yorktown in America. It seemed at that time as if the British Empire was going to end. The British in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were trembling, thinking their last days had come.
Tipu had better rockets, better troops and the British were in no sense technically superior to the Indian armies they were facing. The period of Clive, just 30 years earlier, seems long gone. The dominance established by them has been lost as Indian troops have learnt their lessons.
The British had no sense of cultural superiority. In many ways, they seemed like impoverished Westerners from some cold northern island who are in India because they want to get in on the rich act. All this changes by 1799. First, Tipu goes and then the Mahrattas are knocked over. By the time the Sikhs are dusted off in the 1840s, attitudes have completely changed. Not only are different kinds of people coming out of England, but also these people can see the impact of the industrial revolution on manufactured goods. They feel economically and technologically superior. They feel dominant.
Could the phenomenon of integration of "turning Turk" or becoming "White Mughals" also have something to do with the fact that there were less British women in India in the early days? Are we missing the fact there could also be a biological basis behind this social or cultural phenomenon?
It had absolutely nothing to do with this at all. There were always English women in India and there was no noticeable increase in their number until about the 1860s. To give you a statistical picture, I spent six months going though the wills in the India Office library ... it has the wills of every British soldier in India who made one.
In the decade between 1780 and 1790, one in three British men is leaving everything to an Indian woman. If you extrapolate upwards from this, because these wills are documents which get to be seen by the family back home, you can safely assume that at least half the British are cohabiting with Indian women in this period. Of course this does not mean they are perfect liberals who subscribe to subaltern studies (laughs). But it does indicate a measure of cultural interaction, which hasn't made it to the history books. This figure goes into rapid decline. By 1800, it is down to one in four. By 1820 it is down to one in five and by 1840 it is between to one in six or seven.
How does this correlate with the number of women who are leaving Britain for India?
There is no correlation at all. I suspect that more British men were cohabiting in the 1780s than in the 1840s. By the 1840s, it was difficult to cohabit openly. Sex moved from being open to what it was in the Victorian world, where it occurred only covertly or in brothels.
White Mughals began as a general history on the British-Indian social encounter. And somewhere along the way, you stumbled on those fascinating details about the Kirkpatrick-Khair un-Nissa affair, which led it to become a different book altogether. What would the original book have looked like?
It started as a general book on assimilated Brits. It began with City of Djinns, which contained a character called William Fraser who did the White Mughal thing. I wrote him up in City of Djinns as a unique character as I thought him to be then. I then began to receive, almost immediately after the book was published, letters from people who would write saying, "My great-great grandfather was just like this". They would send me portraits of fabulous guys with beards, smoking hookahs and watching nautch girls. So, it turned out that they must have been a quite a lot of them. I researched it and this research turned up figures such as one in three British men were living with an Indian women.
These men don't cease being British of course. They don't wake up one morning and turn into Mughals. They've got their camp beds, their tents, their shikar equipment. But they also have turbans and spitoons and hookahs, which they all left in their inventories. They are fantastic and full inventories of the things owned by every British official who died in India. The women who they live with also leave wills, equally detailed when they are there. They don't cease to be Indian. They have sarees, they have churis, they have betel nut equipment. But they also have European porcelain, European furniture and, occasionally, European dresses. So, people are experimenting, choosing their own paths in a new situation and two worlds are coming together, even if only in a stumbling or faltering way.
So what exactly was the original White Mughals book going to be like?
White Mughals began with the title "The Brahminised Englishman" and it was going to portray 10 such Englishmen, of which one was always going to be Kirkpatrick. I got a generous advance for it and that kept me going for two years. By then, I had 10 huge files bulging with material and I was prepared to settle down and write the book. This is when a whole series of new stuff turned up about Kirkpatrick.
For example, the Kitab Tuhfat al-Alam, which is as important a text on India by a non-Britain as I have come across. The book shatters the straightforward academic dualism subaltern/imperialist or orientialist/occidental. Here is somebody from Persia being revolted by Indian Muslims, some of them his cousins, for going native in India. So where does this fit in on the orientalist map? It doesn't fit any of the established templates on India. As more and more material kept turning up on Kirkpatrick, his story colonised the rest of the book.
All this material turned up after the advance from the publisher was spent. So I took a great financial gamble, re-mortgaged my house and spent two more years researching Kirkpatrick. I was hugely in debt at the end of it, but within a week of being published, the book had gone to being the No. 1 bestseller in London. So thank God for that.
Two women in Baqar Ali Khan's zenana, Sharaf un-Nissa and Duodena Begum, play an extraordinary role in forging the Kirkpatrick-Khair relationship. The two women, who are Khair un-Nissa's mother and grandmother, even conspire to see that she finally marries Kirkpatrick. Reading these portions gives the impression that you are suggesting that `concubinage' was not a form of complete slavery, that women in zenanas were not totally powerless creatures. Are you knocking another stereotype here?
Yes. There are two basic things I set out to do in this book. First, to show that the stereotype of the British in the 18th Century is utterly different from what it actually was. That the Tom Alter figure in Hindi movies simply doesn't apply to this period. The second thing, as you have pointed out, is that we also have a very different image of the Islam of that period. Islam was this sensuous, vital, richly cultured, formidable, sophisticated world. As for Islamic women, they ran rings around their menfolk. They are literate, bright, educated, clever.
(Holds up the book) Look at Khair-un-Nissa's face on the cover. That is not a bashful, downtrodden Taliban woman in a beehive. That is an extremely sophisticated woman looking the portrait painter directly in the eye and the expression on her face is extremely strong and self-possessed. She has a life of her own and she makes her own destiny. Of course, it's also quite clear that she had a reputation in the family of being strong willed.
Where would you situate White Mughals? On the one hand, it is much much more than a straightforward romantic story. On the other hand, it is not quite a conventional social history of the period. If you were forced to give the `beast' a name, what would you call it?
It is a completely ordinary narrative history. There were two surprises for me in bringing this book here (to India). First is how open people were to it. I expected a lot more resistance to the idea that there were jolly colonialists in one period of the country's history. I expected a much more hostile reception, but there has been no hostility at all.
The second surprise is how people were baffled by the genre. But this book is very much part of a major publishing boom narrative history. In the last four or five years, many of the best-selling books have not been novels, but have been narrative histories.
People read novels to discover they are not alone. For example, when you read Tolstoy, you know all the people in it. The characters could have existed in any society in time. I was brought up in rural Scotland and you were brought up in India, but when we read Tolstoy we see our friends, our contemporaries in the recognisable characters in his novels. In the same way when you read a good work of narrative history, it awakens in you perhaps even more strongly because it is true this awareness of our own humanity. It tells us that there are universals ... , which is why people read, I think. It is the basic reason why we sit down in the evening with a book.
White Mughals must have been a totally different kind of project for you. Travel writing involves meeting all kinds of people and traipsing about in exotic places. Whereas this book must have involved long hours on research glued to a library seat. Was it difficult to make this transition?
Not at all. There are two reasons for this. For one, it didn't feel very different because my travel books have involved a great deal of research. Before I wrote From The Holy Mountain, I spent a whole year sitting in the library reading obscure texts on Byzantine hagiography ... (laughs) ... . which is much more boring.
Moreover, White Mughals involved a great deal of traipsing about. For instance, I made many trips to Hyderabad, travelled all over the Deccan and visited many places. So it didn't feel very different to me.
You end White Mughals with the lines that the Kirkpatrick-Khair affair shows that the East and West are not irreconcilable and never have been. "Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drove them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past and they will do so again". Why "do so again" ...
(Laughs) Because it sounds good.
Are you suggesting there is more bigotry and prejudice today than they were in those days? Or were you thinking of something particular such as the West's fearful obsession with Islam, post-September 11?
Yes. The gross American ignorance about Islam poses a very serious problem for the world. They seem to think that Muslims are out of a different planet. What I particularly hate is that American Islamophobia is creeping into Britain.
People who have lived happily with their neighbours are suddenly finding their neighbours looking at them and thinking, "God, they are Muslim. Could they be terrorists? Do they kill babies?"
If America continues on this course, it could cause a clash of civilisations. I am not saying that this clash is inevitable, but it could happen. But in a way what White Mughals says is that it is unnecessary, that the clash needn't happen, that it is not natural.
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