METRO PLUS

The lover from Madras...

DURING THE course of this week, Madras will listen to a couple of authors who will grab the headlines with tales of love in the Hyderabad court and a passion for photography in the courts of 19th Century Punjab. William Dalrymple and Omar Khan have written a couple of splendid books, one a delightfully smooth read, the other a visual and anecdotal treat. But it is the exhaustive research over the years revealed in both that I envy. It's that research that's not only enriched the books but also given me the opportunity to record the Madras connections of both.

Dalrymple's White Mughals might be all about the great love James Achilles Kirkpatrick and that `Most Excellent among Women', Khair-un-Nissa, shared in the 18th Century at a time when there were many more such inter-racial romances or relationships. But to me, Kirkpatrick's Madras connections are as fascinating, particularly as so much about them has been left unsaid. In fact, the book begins in the woods of Government House, Madras, with Lord Clive (II) trying to learn from two of his `spies' from Hyderabad the truth about the scandal that Resident Kirkpatrick was causing.

James Achilles was the second son of a philandering colonel of the Madras Cavalry, also a James but better known as `The Handsome Colonel'. Col. James, the son of yet another James and a "Creole Lady from Georgia", paused long enough between his flings to marry Katherine Munro at St. Mary's in the fort in 1762. She was the eldest daughter of the late Dr. Andrew Munro of Charles Street, Surgeon of Fort St. George (1742-1756) and in charge of the fifth edition of its first hospital. In it, intoxication, gaming and boxing were rampant among those who chose not to leave with Dr. Munro's favourite dispensation, `Hysterick drafts'!

Born in Madras on August 22, 1764, and baptised in St. Mary's, James Achilles lost his mother when he was 18 months old and was taken to England three years later when his father went back. It was as a 15-year-old that James Achilles returned to Madras in 1779, the Handsome Colonel having bought him a cadetship in the Madras Army.

It was in that Army that James Achilles saw service for the next 14 years, "without in any way distinguishing himself", except for being at the siege of Seringapatam in the Third Mysore War, during which he was attacked and severely wounded by his orderly, establishing house with an Indian woman and siring a son whom he took back to England in 1791 to leave with his father, and acquiring a rare fluency in Indian languages.

He was to describe himself in the Madras Courier "as an officer who from his proficiency in the Persian and Hindoostanee tongues, and conversancy in the manner and customs of the race of men by whom these languages are spoken, had contracted a certain degree of partiality towards them". Words that were indeed signs of things to come.

James Achilles' illegitimate half-brother Williams - the result of another of the Handsome Colonel's conquests - was appointed Resident (Ambassador, but, in time, a post with almost Viceregal powers) in Hyderabad in 1793/94. Four years later, Governor-General Richard Wellesley, struck by Williams' language skills, appointed him his ADC, then, in 1800, his Military Secretary and chief political adviser. The appointment was further sweetened with James Achilles being appointed Resident in Hyderabad. The die was cast for honours, when he got the better of the French, love, when he espied Khair-un-Nissa, and doubts, when his loyalty became suspect.

S. MUTHIAH