India’s Great Tragedy

In my childhood, the Indian Mutiny, as it was then exclusively called in England, was still a subject of high emotion—presented as an inexplicable outrage in which Indian soldiers, trained by the benevolent British, had suddenly turned on their benefactors and massacred large numbers of them over some question of the grease on a new batch of cartridges.

We were not told that the uprising—not just a mutiny—very nearly succeeded in driving the British out of India; that its causes were many and related to a variety of economic, political, and social grievances and particularly to a Christian threat to the Muslim and Hindu religions; that British actions and reactions often exceeded the ferocity and brutality of the mutineers; and that the bloody episode put an end to 332 years of Islamic-Hindu cooperation under the Mughal emperors who, at their best, had encouraged an extraordinary flowering of all the arts and of religious tolerance.

In his wonderful new book, The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple has not just revised forever the old British story; he has matched it with an equally full account from the Indian side. His book, without any sign of strain or artificial connections, deals with a historical tragedy on several very different levels and is a compulsively readable masterpiece. The Last Mughal not only describes Britain’s worst and bloodiest imperial crisis. It revives the memory of a rich Muslim-Hindu culture that vanished forever in the bloodbath of 1857. It is a detailed and intensely human history of a desperate and brutal campaign. And it is, in the best sense of the word, a thriller in which all the characters inexorably interact to produce a dreadful denouement.

Dalrymple’s passion for his subject and his skill and elegance as a writer create an intimate picture of the lives of the people who participated in the events of 1857. On the opening page, for example, he describes a Mughal wedding procession emerging from the Red Fort in Delhi:

It was the job of the chobdars to clear a way through the excitable crowd, before the imperial elephants—always a little unpredictable in the presence of fireworks—appeared lumbering through the gates.

Years of research, especially in the Indian archives, have enabled him to draw on the language people actually used and thus to avoid fictionalizing a story that already seems beyond fiction.

In times of acute crisis, as in 1857 in India, private papers and public documents tend, at best, to be bundled up at the last minute and dumped as soon as possible in a reasonably safe place. In Lahore, Delhi, Calcutta, and Rangoon, Dalrymple has mined such collections, many of them unexamined since 1857. They contain, as he describes them,

great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rolls of attendance and lists of casualties, predictions of victory and promises of loyalty, notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers.

There were also complete files of Delhi …

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