Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Last Mughal : William Dalrymple


Again this is not a typical review, I do not have the knowledge or expertise to write one.

I got this book from the library just to find out what William Dalrymple's was all about. This is the first book by Dalrymple that I have read. I remember reading an excerpt of Nine Lives in a magazine and I quite liked that. But the general review of his novels (friends, friends of friends etc) was almost always "boring" or something similar. No wonder I stayed away from them and it was just out of curiosity that I picked up this one. Now I thank my curious spirit. Yes I loved it, no suspense there.

I generally like books that have something do with history. Not boring Life-and-Ideals-of-Gandhi kind of history  but totally war-kings-drama kind of history, yes I love sensational stuff. I mean it is history and if I am reading it today then it must have been something larger than life ...it may be misery but it should be larger than life misery. If I have to read about one mundane person being killed then I can just pick up my newspaper! If your judgement is that I am an insensitive sick person then well...I do not care!

Back to the book. I admit the first few chapters were a drag. I especially found the chapter titled Believers and Infidels extremely boring. But as I progressed I realized that the chapter was important to show why what happened, happened. In the beginning I could read barely 4-5 pages in a day...But I have this peculiar kind of patience when it comes to books (not humans) ..and I am so so thankful for that.

The title is explicit , it is about "The Last Mughal" Bahadur Shah Zafar , the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 and the subsequent fall of Delhi. I liked many things about the book. Firstly the tone that Dalrymple used. It was one that allowed me to visualize and get a feel of the events narrated. Nothing puts me off than a detached mundane narration of an extraordinary set of events (example: Taslima Nasreen's narration of slaughters and rapes in the most irritating manner in the first part of Lajja..it is a huge list,which is 100 % statistics and 0% emotion.Whatever rage I felt at the system metamorphosed into irritation directed at Nasreen for writing  about it like that) ...

I also liked the way Dalrymple blends a general overview of a particular event with the narration of the fate of a single family or person. You now how it would have felt to be there and you also get a broader picture. Thumbs up !

Another aspect that I liked is the fact that Dalrymple narrates the events with a lot of emotion yet never takes sides, he is impartial and equally cruel to the faults of both parties- the British and the Sepoys. So during one phase I was enraged reading about the slaughter of innocent British women and children at Cawnpore and later I was again cursing the British soldiers for practically stripping the forts and ruining the city of Delhi. The  book  avoids a simplistic reading of the situation which either declares the Last Mughal as innocent or as a culprit. Dalrymple manages to  portray the character of the emperor beautifully.

The vulnerability of the emperor is what strikes one the most. He was an old poetry loving octogenarian forced into taking sides and making decisions that he never wanted to.   We remember all the great mughals, Babur and Akbar among them,  and the sheer contrast between that glorious history and the picture of this abject old man in the book is the real tragedy which does not fail to stir. But on the other hand there was the advent of democracy, the organization skills of the British government ....yes the reader cannot take sides either.  You know that what has ended is the story of a great dynasty which was reduced to a puppet king and decadent descendants but you cannot help but lament the loss of the thriving cultural city that Zafar had nurtured. Strewn amidst the glorious events are some great insightful sections. Ghalib's poetry and the letters that some soldiers wrote to their relatives back in England were touching to say the least.

Reading the book was like experiencing the mutiny on celluloid. The sepoy attack in May 1857 and the British attack later that year and numerous other events unfold in front of the reader's eyes. Once again the book shows just how absurd and futile war is .. death takes no sides , it ravages all. You cannot fail to be moved as you read about the last emperor of the great Mughal dynasty being buried without even the hint of any ceremony, at Rangoon, far away from the land that his forefathers conquered and ruled for years.

It took me few weeks to complete this book, but that was more due to my snail's pace reading than anything else.

3 comments:

sunil said...

The book was gifted to me by one of the friend who did her research work on Bahadur shah Zafar .It indeed was a nice read and the first thing, that I really liked was authenticity of presentation , it is a well researched book ,second you really feel sorry for the state of India which was literally robed not only by British but by our own people ......
regarding capturing and silent burial of Zafar which remained a secret for years ,his own couplet describes his agony or self pity ....
kitana hai bad_nasiib "Zafar" dafn ke liye
do gaz zamin bhi na mili koo-e-yaar main

which in English means "How unfortunate is Zafar who ia not able to get even two yard space for burial in the land of his loved ones

sunil said...

literally robbed * ....furor scribendi....

chatterbox unplugged said...

I remember when I visited the Agra fort long ago I saw that grand architecture but almost all the walls were full of cavities, I was puzzled. Then I came to know that there were jewels in those cavities in the good old days...and till date I don't know why I can't accept the fact that the Peacock throne and the Kohinoor are displayed in London....I guess it is some sort of a divine justice...after all the noble prize medallion of Tagore was stolen in this country...so may be we deserve it.