The writer-saheb among the Mughals

(Business Standard, November 03, 2006)

“Do you know the place where Bahadur Shah Zafar very nearly was buried?” asks William Dalrymple. The author of The Last Mughal, an account of “the fall of a dynasty, Delhi, 1857”, and I are walking—sprinting, actually, given the brisk pace Dalrymple sets—around Zafar Mahal, Bahadur Shah’s summer palace in Mehrauli. The Red Fort was where Zafar conducted, with much prevarication, little funds, and great reluctance, the business of politics and statecraft. This mahal, little known and little visited in a city often indifferent to its own past, was where he relaxed, despite the watchful gaze of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident who built his home, Dilkhusha close by, to keep an eye on the Emperor.

Dalrymple trots along the courtyard and points to a patch of bare earth interrupted by a few feeble blades of grass, flanked by two graves. This is the “do gaz zameen” of the famous verse often attributed to Zafar, who loved his poetry more than the rest of the acoutrements of kingship, but probably not written by him at all: “Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafan ke liye/ Do gaz zameen bhi na mili kue-yaar mein.” (How ill-fated is Zafar, who for his burial/ Cannot find a bare two yards of earth in his beloved land.)

Bahadur Shah Zafar, descendant of Timur, the last Mughal emperor of India, ruled over the remnants of a once-great Empire until the 1857 Rebellion. Caught between a beleagured British citizenry and an influx of rebellious sepoys that felt, to him and the citizens of Delhi, more like an invasion, the emperor threw in his lot with the sepoys. After the British recaptured Delhi—avenging the massacre of Englishmen and Englishwomen in full and grisly measure—the poet-king was exiled to Rangoon and died of natural causes there on November 1862. He was buried in an unmarked grave, instead of the do gaz he had set aside for himself in the palace where he had presided over mehfils and mushairas rather than statecraft, and where modern, garish houses bristling with electricity lines and TV antennae have encroached so close to Zafar Mahal that they cling like limpets to its outer walls.

“This is the Last Mughal’s graveyard,” says Dalrymple, gesturing at this fragile oasis of quiet caught between the clamour of the Sufi dargah next door and the saans-bahu soap operas blaring from the TV of the neighbouring house. “And this sad empty plot should have been Zafar’s.”

The Last Mughal is the first in Dalrymple’s ambitious project to write a series of popular, accessible histories of the Mughal empire. “Indian historians write for one another, with a very few exceptions,” he says, trotting out one of his favourite grievances—the lack of good biographies and histories in India for the common reader, the lack of fierce and genuine public debate over figures such as Netaji Subhas Bose and Shivaji. This baffles him now as it did when he first came to India, over two decades ago, as an 18-year-old student from Scotland who knew nothing of the country.

He writes in the introduction to The Last Mughal of that first glimpse of Delhi: “I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul-de-sacs, feeling the houses close in around me. In particular, what remained of Zafar’s palace, the Red Fort of the Great Mughals, kept drawing me back, and I often used to slip in with a book and spend whole afternoons there, in the shade of some cool pavilion. I quickly grew to be fascinated with the Mughals who had lived there, and began reading voraciously about them. It was here that I first thought of writing a history of the Mughals… a four-volume history of the Mughal dynasty which I expect may take me another two decades to complete.”

Dalrymple’s first book, In Xanadu, published when he was just 22, established him as a travel writer equipped with boundless enthusiasm and a natural exuberance. Over the next two decades, he wrote several works of non-fiction. City of Djinns is a memoir of Delhi that still reads like an unbridled love letter written by a swain who notes every fault of the beloved but stays true to his passion; The Age of Kali is a collection of essays on Calcutta; From The Holy Mountain took him to Jerusalem and White Mughals looked at the lives and loves of Englishmen who went far more native, Dalrymple suggested, than the official histories of India cared to acknowledge.

The Last Mughal examines Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sadly trammeled reign in some detail, but it is really a revisionist view of the Mutiny of 1857, and an ode to the Delhi that vanished with the fall of the Mughal dynasty. Dalrymple draws heavily on the Mutiny Papers, an archive of letters, diaries and other records made by the citizens of Delhi in and after 1857 that were left undisturbed in the National Archives for years. These papers restore what has been missing from historians’ accounts of 1857-the Indian perspective.

His history offers a radically different view of what the rebellion meant and what lay behind the abortive uprising. There were tensions between a growing, radical wave of Christian missionaries intent on civilizing the savages and the more pluralistic and tolerant Islamic culture that was the norm in Zafar’s court. “For the British after 1857,” Dalrymple notes towards the end of The Last Mughal, “the Indian Muslim became an almost subhuman creature, to be classified in unembarrassedly racist imperial literature alongside such other despised and subject specimens, such as Irish Catholics or ‘the Wandering Jew’.”

The citizens of Delhi themselves saw the sepoys who came in from elsewhere as outsiders, “purabiyas”, who had no understanding of the sophisticated, cultured ways of the great city. After 1857, Dalrymple writes, “…As Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would grow gradually apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborators among the chauvinists of both faiths… [After Partition] the time would come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.”

Back in the present, Dalrymple is headed towards Dilkhusha, Thomas Metcalfe’s house, when he’s waylaid by one of the organizers of the Phoolwalon ki Sair, the famous flower-sellers’ procession through the streets that is an annual fixture.

“Bill!” he says, beaming. “I read about your book in the papers.”

As Dalrymple’s new friend leads him off to meet the organizers of Phoolwalon ki Sair, a quiet gentlemen in an elegant sherwani materializes at my elbow. “Let him finish, then I will talk to him. I know all of his friends but he doesn’t know me.” When Dalrymple comes back, the quiet gentleman mentions several friends—Delhi historians, journalists, writers—and introduces himself in a lateral manner. “I’m the cousin of Pakeezah.”

Dalrymple is delighted. “Aha, Pakeezah Begum!” He turns to me and gestures at the quiet gentleman: “He’s a Mughal, a pukka Mughal—so (to the gentleman) Bahadur Shah Zafar is your great-great-great grandfather? (To me) He’s the real thing!” The gentleman makes a small, deprecating gesture and says gently, “I wanted to tell you to write about Zafar’s court, many mistakes have been made in the accounts, about Ilahi Baksh and others.” We stand in a small knot, flanked by the dargah, Zafar Mahal and nouveau kitsch buildings, discussing the members of Zafar’s court with as much passion that contemporary Dilliwallas bring to a discussion of, say, Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle.

“So modest,” says Dalrymple as we make our polite, courtly farewells. “He identified himself as ‘Pakeezah’s cousin’—another man would have said outright, I am the descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar.” He should be used to the unusual encounter, the strange coincidence, but there is something rather wonderful about meeting a descendant of the Emperor as we emerge from Zafar Mahal, on the day of one of the best-loved festivals of Mughal and modern times.

In City of Djinns, Dalrymple records similar serendipitous encounters, unexpected guides to a city that fascinated and repelled him, as it does all of its inhabitants. He wrote in that 1993 work: “Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.” In The Last Mughal, he acknowledges the hold the city has on him—except in the summer months, when he retreats judiciously to cooler climes, calling Delhi the “city that has haunted and obsessed me for over two decades now”.

“I took [Salman] Rushdie around,” says Dalrymple, striding into Mehrauli’s Archaeological Park, “and he read the Arabic script very easily. One forgets he has that training.” I follow in Rushdie’s footsteps grimly, somewhat hampered by a broken sandal strap. Tucked away in the prickly, straggling patch of forest is a beautiful gem of a structure, a cross between a baoli and a madrassa. “At the time of Zafar, pilgrims and visitors would camp here during the phoolwalon ki sair,” Dalrymple says. “In any other city, something like this would be a huge attraction, you’d have Japanese tourists clicking away. Here, you have—” he scans the empty, silent horizon—“two goats. Look at the view—you can see the Jogmaya temple, Adam Khan’s tomb, that tower there is Zafar Mahal and that is… [photographer] Raghu Rai’s house.” The goats eye us with bleary interest before returning to their exploration of Zafar’s madrassa-sarai.

Unlike the Red Fort, this part of Mehrauli has retained its charm and the imprimatur of the past, despite the encroachment of human habitation on all sides. Dalrymple spent a lot of time in the Red Fort researching The Last Mughal, and writes: “Yet however often I visited it, the Red Fort always made me sad. When the British captured it in 1857, they pulled down the gorgeous harem apartments, and in their place erected a line of barracks that look as if they had been modeled on Wormwood Scrubs. Even at the time, the destruction was regarded as an act of wanton philistinism.”

Much more than the glories of the past, today’s Red Fort recalls the place where a local thanedar, Muin-ud-Din Khan, went in search of the emperor to ask what the citizens should do when the sepoys of the Mutiny looted and pillaged the capital for provisions. He found an ageing, solitary king: “I am helpless; all my attendants have lost their heads or fled,” Zafar told Muin-ud-Din. “I remain here alone. I have no force to obey my orders: what can I do?” Zafar would be surrounded by disrespectful soldiers over the next few days, sepoys who wore their shoes in the presence of the king, jostled him and expected silver and gold from the empty treasuries for their loyalty. He would, fatally, give his blessing to the Mutiny, and briefly dream of reviving the glories of the Mughal Empire before the British imprisoned and exiled him and left Delhi in ruins.

The pepperpot-ruins of Metcalfe House call forth another view of 1857 from the British perspective. Dilkhusha was built, Dalrymple explains, on the ruins of a Mughal tomb. The Metcalfes installed a billiards table in place of the sarcophagus—“A display of sensitivity that was the hallmark of the Metcalfe family”. Sir Thomas kept Zafar on a tight leash, though the Resident died of suspected poisoning in 1853. His son, Theo, took some of the harshest and bloodiest measures against Delhi and its citizenry after the events of 1857.

But Dilkhusha must have been a pleasant place, with the channeled rivulets of water leading down to the boathouse, and the “honeymoon rooms” reserved for young married couples, the stiff and formal procession of servants who kept the house running perfectly. Harriet Tytler, who survived 1857 and whose memoirs of the siege of Delhi are extensively quoted in The Last Mughals writes of coming back to a ruined, devastated city in 1858. “She’d seen British soldiers hurl sepoys off the Qutb Minar, half the city had been ruined, her British friends had been massacred, and yet sitting neatly on the mantelpiece at Dilkhusha, absolutely intact, was her wedding invitation.”

The sun is setting over the Qutb Minar, and Dalrymple has a plane to catch, another round of interviews to give, before he can resume work on the next volume in his Mughal series. He is suddenly serious, as he speaks of the importance of popular history: “If you don’t have accessible, accurate books that speak to the middle-class reader who reads his or her Vikram Chandra and Vikram Seth, then you leave a gap. Myth hardens, as it has done in the case of figures like Shivaji and Netaji, and it becomes impossible to discuss them in any meaningful manner as historical figures—hagiography takes over, legend takes over.”

This absence, and the absence of a community of strong non-fiction writers in India, is one of Dalrymple’s few regrets. This, and the fact that he didn’t buy Bahadur Shah Zafar’s wife’s gatehouse. “Zeenat Mahal’s gatehouse was up for sale last year,” he says. “I almost bought it, could see myself running a Mughal-style gatehouse pub in the middle of nowhere. And then I remembered I have three children to feed, books to write—too impractical. But me, owner of Zeenat Mahal’s gatehouse—what a wonderful book cover it would have made!”





One response to “The writer-saheb among the Mughals”

  1. Supriya Avatar

    I love everything you write,but I’d like to point out that The Age of Kali refers to Kaliyug and not not Ma kali, so it isn’t a book about Calcutta. Also, the wonderful book From the Sacred Mountain includes Jerusalem but is about a journey to different Christian sites in the Middle East.

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