April 2007 Read

March 28th, 2007

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Love. Sex. Betrayal. Scandal. Taboo. All the ingredients for a great story. This month’s read is no exception. What makes it so interesting is that it is all true. At the end of the 18th century, England and France were engaged in a global conflict that spanned three continents and every ocean. India was a colonial province of both superpowers, with both governments vying for the right to call India there own. For the British officers who served in India during this time, the allure of the people, customs, and women in particular was endearing for most, and particularly enticing for many. In William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, this mutual attraction is told through the story of a British officer and young Indian princess. From the fields of Yorkshire to the gardens of Hyderabad, here is this month’s read.

India is a vast country of different cultures and sub-cultures, multiple languages and dialects, varying geography, and competing religions in Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty which ruled India from 1526 to 1858, lived in and fostered a society rich in architecture, arts, literature, and cultural diversity. Western Europeans had very limited exposure to and contact with this country up until the Portuguese began navigating the waters off southeastern India in the early 1500′s. Over the next 250 years the British and French made various attempts to ingratiate themselves into India culture and politics, with varying degrees of success. By the end of the 18th century, the two superpowers had broad designs on global domination, and the British, through the East India Company, made a concerted effort to thwart the French’s similar efforts within India’s complicated political landscape.

William Dalrymple’s “White Mughals” tells the true story James Kirkpatrick, an officer for the East India Company stationed in the Indian city of Hyderabad. As the title suggests, Kirkpatrick was a “White Mughal,” one of the many British soldiers and Company men who completely ingratiated themselves in Indian culture. Through extensive research of handwritten journals, letters, Company accounts, and books – many of which were written only in sanskrit – Dalrymple provides a detailed picture of what day-to-day life was like. This description extends to things like how the typical Indian household was managed, the design of and use of gardens, food preparation and cooking, sexual attitudes and mores, architectural styles, and much more. It also does a good job of illustrating the political landscape in which both the French and the British had to operate and attempt to advance their own interests. For a White Mughal, the fact that he immersed himself so deeply into the culture while at the same time serving as an officer in the Empire presented unique challenges.

But the most interesting pieces of the book center on the love affair and subsequent marriage between Kirkpatrick and a young Muslim princess, Khair un-Nissa. Through the spyglass of history, most people would see such a union as taboo, if not altogether scandalous from the 19th century viewpoint of both the British and the Indian Muslim perspectives (Kirkpatrick not only took Khair un-Nissa, a relative of the region’s prime minister, as his lover, but even converted to Islam to marry her). However, Dalrymple goes through great pains to provide many examples of how this type of “crossing over” and cultural mixing was not unheard of and, in many cases, encouraged before the British expansionist movement in India.

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Entry Filed under: Book Reviews

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