Sunday, December 18, 2016

white mughals

Sixty-two. It was an impressive effort.

Once I finished William Dalrymple's White Mughals I turned to the Glossary and gave Barby the test. A bit of Hindustani here. A bit of Urdu and Persian over there. A lot of Koranic-Mosque terminology everywhere. But out of almost 140 words, she got 62 correct. Very impressive, don't you think? As a point of comparison, my score was 26. What do you expect? My Hindi opens mouths with laughter, while Barby's Hindi opens hearts with admiration. I love watching it happen. One of the highlights of living back in India...

It has been a long, hard year and with a bit of the doctor in our ears, we set off for a break and a five day exploration of a new city. Hyderabad. Overnight train each way, in a two-person 'coupe' all on our own. No work allowed. Not even contact with friends in the city (that always feels terrible). And what has White Mughals to do with all this? The story takes place in Hyderabad, largely between about 1795-1805. So... reading through the book at the very same time as walking through the places. My idea of fun!

The highlight was visiting this building, the home of the British Resident, or High Commissioner - and built by the main character in the book. It is massive - 'not unlike its exact contemporary, the White House' (xxxii). In ruins and unused now, but with some half-hearted, and probably poorly funded, efforts at restoration taking place.


On the front steps with my book.
There is a model of the original building out the back. Such a model features in the story...



It is such a sad story, a love story between the British 'Resident' (James Achilles Kirkpatrick) and a (very) young Muslim Indian princess (Khair un-Nissa). I am not going to spoil the plot for you, but reflect more peripherally on the story in a number of ways.


History
Just as Downtown Abbey engages with the erosion of the upstairs:downstairs class distinction in early twentieth century England, White Mughals traces the replacement of a 'fusion and hybrid' (500) era, characterized by mingling and mixing, with a separatist era in which the British Empire turns a bit rogue and ruthless. 'The easy labels of religion and ethnicity and nationalism, slapped on by a generation of historians, turned out to be ... surprisingly unstable' (xl). A Governor General (Waterloo's Duke of Wellington elder brother) and, to a lesser extent, 'Evangelical Christianity' attract much of the blame for this change.
For nearly three hundred years Europeans coming out to the subcontinent had been assimilating themselves to India in a kaleidoscope of different ways ... (but now it) was a place to be changed and conquered, not a place to be changed or conquered by (54).
James was among the last of the English officials in India who found it possible to truly cross cultures ... (making the leap) from Britain to India, from Georgian to Mughal, from Christianity to Islam. India was no longer a place to embrace and to be transformed by; instead it was a place to conquer and transform (454). 
One wonders about the transitions happening in our early twenty-first century. Has much changed?

Colonisation
There is a lot of chatter about colonisation coming out of my home in New Zealand. It seems to be the great evil. Evils have been perpetrated, that is for sure - but I don't find the narrative totally convincing. Lots of things are going on, at different layers, with colonisation - some even quite good. For example, for these 'White Mughals' like James Kirkpatrick, this is a story of  'the Indian conquest of the European colonisation ... the coloniser colonised' (10, 28). This insight brought a smile to me face. It took me back to boarding school days in the Himalayas. American kids would come out for a single year of high school. Routinely, they'd hate the first semester, but after a vacation trip around India and then a second semester, invariably the last thing they wanted to do was to go home to the States. Representatives of the great colonisers of the late twentieth century had themselves been colonised - and changed forever. Not such a bad thing. A difficulty I find with discussions around colonisation is the selectivity which is shown. Why are we not as critical of the colonisation of the world today by certain professional sports, certain brands of music, or a certain image of beauty - each, in their own way, disrupting the local and indigenous? One person's colonisation seems to be another person's globalisation.

A view inside ... I think I saw the sign forbidding photos after I took this one!
Carelessness
I won't critique Dalrymple for much, but I will on this point - as I do with much of the media and the academy. "C'mon people. Show some professionalism." A basic principle of research is that you paint your opponent in their best light and engage with what you see. With Dalrymple (and the media and the academy), Christianity is usually painted in its poorest light, while Hinduism and Islam are painted in their purest light. Glimpses of truth may exist with both representations, but it is hardly a fair and accurate truth. Maybe it is an early downpayment on post-truth and fake news! 'Islam overcame the English more by its sophistication and power of attraction, than by the sword' (19). Really?! The added complication for this perspective today is that you can be both truly Indian and truly Christian - even a truly admirable Evangelical Christian. Shock. Horror. But I know heaps of them...
[NB: I am in the midst of preparing some talks from 1 Peter - living for Christ amidst harassment and persecution - and I think this is one of the real, but admittedly milder, ways in which persecution happens in countries like New Zealand].

James Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa
Characters
Yep, they are memorable. Beautifully developed. I'd love to see a quality movie director have a go at this story. There is so much to like about James Kirkpatrick, for example. The way he operated cross-culturally, building trust and friendship with the Nizam of Hyderabad (who referred to him as his 'Beloved Son'). Case study stuff. The way he took a stand against the Governor General's demands to 'bully and bribe and browbeat', almost living to see the day when he was fully vindicated. What about with his young wife? He chose to be circumcised and to convert to Islam in order to marry her and oh, how his love prevailed.
It was James's fate for his love to be tested not once, but four times. Four entirely separate inquiries had been carried out into his affair with Khair. At each stage he could have easily washed his hands of his teenage lover. Each time he chose to remain true to her (400).
Also, on characters ... I enjoyed the portrayal of the power which older women can have behind the scenes in a Muslim world (see 248-259). But also Khair. So strong, 'a dominant force among the women ... in her widowhood, she clearly still retained her magnetism and her effortless ability to get her way with all those who were drawn into her orbit' (425) - at barely twenty years of age. Incredible. But then she went on to live 'the saddest of lives' (464) ...

A 'Chinnery' (the name of a painter) of the two children on the eve of their departure to England,
never to see their parents again. 'One of the masterpieces of British painting in India' (390).
[NB: later in life, the daughter was drawn into the orbit of the Clapham Sect folks].
Memories
The dilemma of the 'white mughal' is a bit like that of the missionary kid. These words sound so familiar:
England was no longer the place that James really considered to be his home. He had been born in India ... he felt most himself in India, and returning to England was the last thing he wanted ... (but) his spirit might feel comfortably at home in India; but his wretched body, less malleable, seemed to need England (352, 379).
Beauty
Dalrymple is such a good writer. How does he do it? The way he wades into the details of history and comes out with a compelling story. In literary terms it is like developing a palace out of an archaeological dig. When James dies (in Calcutta - and buried in the Park Street Cemetery), Dalrymple writes:
But it cannot have been a very emotional affair. For James had died among strangers, away from everyone he loved, and far from everyone who loved him. His beloved wife, his two little children, his brothers, his friends, and his father: as he was laid in the muddy monsoon ground, not one of them even knew that he was dead. In place of tears, there was a cold military salute. The coffin was lowered, and the mud of the grave was filled in. (398)
Hope
Dalrymple closes with a word of hope, a hope that I share - but for different reasons, I suspect.
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 (501).
In their fullest expression 'East and West' (although this did cease long ago to be a helpful way to categorise the world) 'meet and mingle', experiencing both a unity and a diversity, in the gospel of Jesus. That is where people become the truest form of who they really are. That is where bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear is most fully expelled by the peace and dignity, the humility and harmony in what the cross of Christ achieves. I believe it with all that I am. And in this wretched world, giving us a ride through 2016 that I so often just wanted to get off, this hope is still something to celebrate this Christmas.

nice chatting

Paul

PS1: I've reviewed two other Dalrymple books here: The Last Mughal and Return of a King.

PS2: The Discovery Channel has done a 60 minute documentary, narrated by William Dalrymple, which basically tells the story of White Mughals in visual-audio form.

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