Friday, October 27, 2006

Speaking of the Great Mutiny

... sorry, the First War of Independence ... William Dalrymple has a piece in the New Statesman on his new book: The last Mughals and a clash of civilizations. Of course, there's the obligatory "lesson to be learned" by today's leaders, but still ... Here's a neat bit:
In 2002, researching in the National Archive in Delhi for a book on the life of Zafar, I found a remarkable collection of 20,000 previously untranslated Urdu and Persian documents that enabled me to resurrect in some detail the life of the city before and during the siege. Cumulatively, the stories contained in these Mutiny papers allowed the great uprising of 1857 to be seen not in terms of nationalism, imperialism, orientalism or other such abstractions, but as a tragic human event for ordinary individuals whose fate it was to be caught up accidentally in one of the great upheavals of history. Public, political and national disasters, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies.

The Last Mughal, published this month, continues the story I began in White Mughals - the story of the fast-changing relationship between the British and the Indians, and especially Muslim Indians - in the late 18th and the mid-19th century.

During the 18th century it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs, and even the religions, of India, as the reverse. These white Mughals had responded to their travels in India by shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philo sophy, taking harems and copying the ways of the Mughal governing class they came to replace - what Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called "chutnification". By the end of the 18th century one-third of the British men in India were leaving their possessions to Indian wives.

In Delhi, the period was symbolised by Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident, who arrived in the city in 1803: every evening, all 13 of his Indian wives went around Delhi in a procession behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant. For all the humour of this image, in such mixed households, Islamic customs and sensitivities were clearly understood and respected. One letter, for example, recorded that "Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca". Indeed, Ochterlony strongly considered bringing up his children as Muslims, and when his children by his chief wife, Mubarak Begum, had grown up, he adopted a child from one of the leading Delhi Muslim families.

This was not an era when notions of clashing civilisations would have made sense. The world that Ochterlony inhabited was more hybrid, and had far less clearly defined ethnic, national and religious borders, than we have been conditioned to expect. It is certainly unfamiliar to anyone who accepts the usual caricature of the Englishman in India, presented repeatedly in films and television dramas, of the narrow-minded sahib dressing for dinner in the jungle.
And just for fun, here's some food for post-colonial thought (to unabashedly lift the line that introduces this link at A&L Daily)at Slate: Which country is the best colonizer?

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