A tale of love and betrayal in 19th century India, we took a trip to the era of Mughals with this novel by William Dalrymple.
“Kirkpatrick had gone out to India full of ambition, intent on making his name in the subjection of a nation; but instead it was he who was conquered, not by an army but by a Hyderabadi noblewoman called Khair un-Nissa.” -William Dalrymple.
Scottish native historian, curator, writer and art-historian, William Dalrymple resides in Delhi, India today. Having researched thoroughly about the culture and history of the subject, he meticulously produced the beautiful work called White Mughals, a real but unfortunately tragic, love story which took place in the time of the Mughal Empire, between English Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa begum, a woman of noble Hyderabadi heritage. Initially working for the East India Company, Kirkpatrick was a Resident at the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court, in the 18th century, where he happened to catch a glimpse of the Nizam Prime Minister’s granddaughter, “Most excellent among Women” Khair un- Nissa. This led to many obstacles, struggles and strife which the Soldier overcame to achieve his love, and validate it, despite her prior engagement and strict upbringing. James converts to Islam to marry Khair un-Nissa, becoming a double-agent if rumours are true, against the East India Company.
What I love about the way the story is written is the way the love story is used as a proxy, subtly, to illustrate and unearth unexplored territory in India at the time of the British Empire. Dalrymple polishes the pages with rich history, introducing eccentric characters, the Hindu Stuart, who tries to convince and imposes the wearing of the sari on English women, roaming around with his team of Brahmins to maintain his idols at the temple; or Sir David Ochterlony, whose thirteen wives were taken out on nightly excursions atop elephants.
Apart from the colourful unveiling of historic figures, there is authentic intrigue, political strife, drama in the harem, issues/crises Kirkpatrick tries to balance as the orientalised British Resident adopts both cultures, a man shown to be very forthcoming to serve his country, whilst embracing Islam and the culture of the Subcontinent, referring to the title “White Mughals” were common at the time, where British soldiers or residents would often adopt the Indian culture and its customs, thus the term was coined.
Dalrymple enunciates beautifully with scrupulous attention to detail, the cultural and intellectual harmonies that are born from the union of Islam and Christianity, and how the mixed-race offspring of said “White Mughals” were treated with pre-modern intolerance. The tragic twist at the end grips the reader, as in his interview William Dalrymple himself states that he did not know the end of the love-story until a few months before the beginning of writing, in fact there is scarce knowledge about their truth.
“Originally, James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa were going to be half of a chapter in a book about British officials who “went native” in eighteenth century India – but their story just grew and grew.”
No set of documents can provide such an intimate picture of a mixed marriage, during a time in history when the East India Company was taking control and ruling over India. Dalrymple is able to beautifully orchestrate, the ostensible dispute between the clash of civilisations, a work of non-fiction which engulfs the reader, discussing and exploring so much more than love and betrayal, a narrative historic tale which paints a realistic flashback to the time itself centuries ago, in an intricate and relatable way. Prejudice and fear are what drive the East and West apart, the cultural gap or misunderstanding can only be solved by repairing the rift.
Rating: 4.5/10 for the impeccable delivery of an authentic and riveting narrative!