Speaking Volumes: An insider’s history

(October 23, Business Standard)

At the Kitab festival earlier this year in the capital, William Dalrymple read an excerpt from The Last Mughal, his account of the sunset years of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign as the events of 1857 tore Delhi apart. He chose a passage that demonstrated the growing and implacable divide between the British and the Indians, in marked contrast to a period just a few decades before, when the two communities had overlapping lives and mixed far more freely.

Outside the auditorium, after he’d finished, an Indian publisher said, bristling slightly, “I wonder how the Scots would feel if one of us went over there and started lecturing them about their own history.” The comment struck me with some force, perhaps because like many Indian readers, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Dalrymple as one of “our chaps”, despite his Scottish upbringing and heritage. One of this popular historian’s early works, City of Djinns, is an exuberant account of Delhi’s history that remains a tourist bestseller, but that Delhi’s “natives” also enjoyed.

Dalrymple abandons India in classic British fashion for a few months every year when the heat and dust becomes too much for him, but has lived here with his family for years, first in Sunder Nagar and now in a sprawling farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. He belongs to a venerable tradition of foreigners who have gone native, much as his hookah-smoking counterparts in kurta-pyjama with a begum tucked away in the backyard did in a previous generation.

When I look at the shelves of popular works on Indian history—this means, of necessity, discounting the massive body of strictly academic work that’s delved into the history of the country—I can see where that publisher’s grouse comes from. I’ve heard the same complaint, in different versions, repeated over the years about writers like Dalrymple in the field of travel and history, and it’s worth addressing.

Much of the most accessible, and occasionally even scholarly, work on the history of the subcontinent has always come from outsiders, starting with Ibn Battuta and Hsieun Tsang and working one’s way through James Todd, Max Mueller, Percival Spear and writers of popular travelogues such as Tim Mackintosh-Smith. If you look at Indian history through the centuries, much of it consists of what are effectively political memoirs—the Baburnama, for instance—or commissioned hagiographies—the Padshahnama, or the accounts of the Deccani Sultanate. There are many brilliant historians in contemporary India, but most of them have written for their peers, with a very few—Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Ramachandra Guha among them—addressing a more general audience.

In a more crowded field, The Last Mughal wouldn’t stand out as one of Dalrymple’s best or most astonishing works, though it is an extremely illuminating read. He seems to struggle in the first part of the book with the vastness of his subject—the life of Bahadur Shah Zafar, puppet Emperor turned puppet leader of the rebels, the 1857 uprising and the subsequent massacres, the religious politics that turned part of the Mutiny into a war of Islam against an encroaching Christianity and the schism created between the British and the Indians as a result. Even for a historian with Dalrymple’s gift for deft, concise and always entertaining summary, this is a massive canvas—perhaps too massive.

Though the 1857 Uprising (or, according to taste, Mutiny/ Rebellion/ War of Independence) has been covered fairly comprehensively, Dalrymple’s great contribution has been to bring in the Indian perspective by using “the 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857, known as the Mutiny Papers”. Towards the middle of the book, when the voices of Ghalib, Delhi’s merchants, Zafar’s unruly and unwanted army of sepoys, marauding Gujars on the roads outside Delhi, courtesans and poets come in, The Last Mughal comes alive.

I was left with several questions. Why do so few “native” Indians (as opposed to certain Scotsmen we’re happy to claim as Dilliwallahs) attempt popular histories or biographies of this kind? The National Archives, the libraries of the Deccan and other archives in India contain many records, like the Mutiny Papers, that are unexplored—are we really this uninterested in our own history, or is this interest beginning, finally, to take off? And most important, I’m thinking about addressing that publisher’s grievance by writing a book on Bannockburn. Any interested\nScots publishers are warmly encouraged to get in touch.





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