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Unearthing the White Mughals

The interesting tale of James Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad and his Hyderabadi Begum Khair-un-Nissa, helped William Dalrymple to reconstruct the lives of the `White Mughals'- British officers who assimilated themselves into Indian life. His narrative non-fiction work makes history much more accessible and enjoyable to the generalist reader. USHA RAMAN converses with the author and offers a peek into his latest book.

HOME COMING: William Dalrymple marvels that so little has been written about Hyderabad. — Photos: P. V. Sivakumar

IT'S FRIDAY evening and the iftar rush is at its peak. The Irani restaurants are full of Hyderabadis breaking the fast or just grabbing a quick bite of the Ramzan special. The lights of Café Bahar in Basheerbagh just beg the passer by to stop and sample the haleem and freshen up with a cup of sweet hot Irani chai. Having given in to the temptation, the writer sits satisfied, at a table to the rear of the crowded café, mopping up the last of the haleem with a piece of naan and spooning in the last bit of biryani. It's obvious that he loves being here, just as he "absolutely loved" working on the book that has brought him back, just now.

William Dalrymple, author of White Mughals (published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin), looks every bit the comfortably assimilated angrez that he focuses on in his book - eighteenth century Brits who came to India to seek their fortune (minus of course the hookah and the nautch girls who feature in portraits of the era!). What is it like for William Dalrymple to come back to the city to launch a book that he has spent, in his own description, "nearly one-seventh of his life" researching? "It's exhilarating," he says. "A sort of weird consummation of a passion that was ignited nearly six years ago!"

PASSIONATE PILGRIM: The writer's narrative non-fiction makes the reading of history enjoyable.

In February 1997, Dalrymple was on a tour of Hyderabad when he visited the Osmania University Women's College campus in Koti. The former residency building, still grand though rapidly falling into disrepair, stirred his imagination, and what lurked in the undergrowth at the rear of the compound captivated him completely. The remains of the Begum's Garden seemed to him to hold a tale that promised to demolish some of the stereotypes of the British in India - arrogant, racist, and culturally alienated from his context. Dalrymple suspected that in the eighteenth Century, the courts of Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad, among others, were completely `chutnified' - the Europeans who had come to India during the course of the past century had taken on many of the local customs, had Indian wives or companions, and had gone native. "It's clear from the records of the period that at least one in three Englishmen fell into this category," says Dalrymple. But, he says, this image of the British in India has been completely erased from memory, superceded almost entirely by the Victorian image of the stuffy, aggressive imperialist. The process of assimilation came to an almost complete halt by the 1850s, with the rise of evangelical Christianity and spreading missionary activity across the Empire.

That was the history that William Dalrymple was prompted to investigate. "But then, a completely different story ended up colonising my imagination while I was working on the book," he recounts - a colonisation that began on that visit to the Hyderabad Residency complex. And this was the story that finally formed the core of the book, White Mughals. The Residency and the ruins of the zenana were what remained of the life and times of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident in Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805, and his Hyderabadi Begum, Khair-un-Nissa. Kirkpatrick had evidently converted to Islam to marry Khair-un-Nissa, and Dalrymple's preliminary research revealed that Kirkpatrick had also mixed freely with the people of the city, taking on many of their ways of life. While many of us in Hyderabad are familiar with the outlines of this story, we know little of the context that it occurred within.

A few months further into his investigations, which took him from archives and tattered Persian manuscripts unearthed in Hyderabad, to the British Library in London, Dalrymple found that Kirkpatrick's story was not all that unusual - rather, it was an example of the kind of assimilation that had taken place for decades in India. "Life in these courts was truly multicultural much before that term became a buzzword!" he quips. As he emphasises in his introduction to the book, "this unlikely group of expatriates provides a timely reminder that it is indeed very possible and has always been possible to reconcile the two worlds." It is the story of Khair-un-Nissa and Kirkpatrick, however, which is responsible for the huge appeal the book seems to have already had for the Hyderabadi audience. Although Hyderabadis constantly walk amidst reminders from ages past, as a people we are perhaps rather `ahistorical' in our consciousness. Occasional events such as the opening of a renovated bridge or mushairas at the Qutub Shahi tombs remind us of how and why the city came to be. Dalrymple marvels that so little has been written about Hyderabad, so little of its multi-layered past has been subjected to serious historical analysis. According to him, there are so many stories here that are just waiting to be told. "Nowhere else in India has the past been more neglected as in Hyderabad," he says. He cites the destruction of a large fund of materials from the A.P. State Archives (damaged by rain) and the public neglect of such monuments as Raymond's Tomb (in Saroornagar) as examples of this indifference to heritage. He also mentions the lack of interest in such valuable historical material as Jagdish Mittal's absolutely exquisite collection of Mughal and Asaf Jahi miniatures and illuminated manuscripts. Mittal's offer of the collection to the Salar Jung museum was reportedly turned down. "It's a treasure on the scale of the Getty collection, and any city should be proud to have it. I'm sure New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art would pay millions for a collection like that. I'm hoping that the book will at least generate some interest in restoring and maintaining some of these monuments and records," says Dalrymple.

One of his earlier works, The City of Djinns about the `Twilight era' in Delhi, the years preceding the Raj, revived an interest among many young people. "I received hundreds of letters from Delhi teenagers thanking me for telling them about their city's past," recounts Dalrymple. That was really gratifying. He hopes that a similar interest will be generated among Hyderabadis, and among others who care about history. Much of the primary source material that he used was in Persian, and the book provided the opportunity for it to be translated into English, and therefore available to a larger public. Dalrymple's work itself makes history much more accessible to the generalist reader. His narrative non-fiction makes the reading of history truly enjoyable, a far cry from the dry archival style of most history texts.

While working on the book, Dalrymple says, he was totally obsessed with the subject. The intrigues of the Nizam's court, the Asaf Jahi noblemen and East India Company officials who formed the dramatis personae of his story, and the letters that went back and forth between two continents consumed him for the best part of nearly six years. "I gambled everything on this book- it was done at great cost, and I had no idea how it would be received." For a book that deals with a long-forgotten and `actively buried' period in Indo-British history, it has done extremely well. It raced to the top of the best seller list in Britain within the first week, and in India, has sold more than 10,000 copies in hardcover so far, with a reprint order of 7000. And what next? More of Hyderabad? "Perhaps," says Dalrymple. Maybe a sequel of some sort. Hyderabad was Dalrymple's penultimate stop in a six-city promotional tour sponsored by Penguin India and the British Council and Taj Krishna. "It's been a pleasure to bring the book home to where it all began," said Dalrymple. And at the Café Bahar, as he rises to wash his hands of the curry and oil from the biryani and haleem, he seems entirely at home in this birthplace of the "White Mughals."

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