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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-century India: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-century India [Paperback]

William Dalrymple
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Amazon Review

William Dalrymple's White Mughals is destined to become one of the great non-fictional classics of Anglo-Indian history. Dalrymple is steeped in India, having lived there for six years, and written a series of remarkable travel books chronicling its past and present, including City of Djinns and The Age of Kali. Having already earned comparisons with great travel writers like Chatwin and Theroux, Dalrymple has now produced a meticulously researched and beautifully written historical narrative on one of the most colourful but neglected aspects of British colonial rule in India.

Set in and around Hyderabad at the beginning of the nineteenth century, White Mughals tells the story of the improbably romantic love affair and marriage between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a rising star in the East India Company, and Khair-un-Nisa, a Hyderabadi princess. Pursuing Kirkpatrick's passionate affair through the archives across the continents, Dalrymple unveils a fascinating story of intrigue and love that breaches the conventional boundaries of empire. As Kirkpatrick gradually goes native (adopting local clothes and enduring circumcision) he becomes a secret agent working for his wife's royal family against the English, as he tries to balance the interests of both cultures.

However, White Mughals is by no means just an exotic love story. It is a vehicle for Dalrymple's understanding of the complex legacy of the English Empire in India, that he defines more in terms of exchange and negotiation than dominance and subjugation. It is a powerful and moving plea by Dalrymple to understand the cultural intermingling and hybridity that defines both eastern and western cultures, and a convincing rejection of religious intolerance and ethnic essentialism. Elegantly written and at a pace that belies its length, White Mughals confirms Dalrymple's status as one of the most important non-fiction writers of his time. -–Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘William Dalrymple is that rarity, a scholar of history who can really write. This is a brilliant and compulsively readable book’ Salman Rushdie

‘Destined to become an instant classic’ Amanda Foreman

‘A bravura display of scholarship, writing and insight. Dalrymple manages the incredible feat of outpointing most historians and most novelists in one go. This is quite simply a stunning achievement’ Independent on Sunday

‘Gorgeous, spellbinding and important, [a] tapestry of magnificent set-pieces’ Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times

‘Enthralling … brilliant, as exhaustively researched as it is brilliantly written’ Mail on Sunday

From the Publisher

In White Mughals, William Dalrymple discovers a world almost entirely unexplored by history, and places at its centre a compelling tale of seduction and betrayal. The product of five years’ writing and research, triumphantly confirms Dalrymple’s reputation as one of the finest writers at work today.

Dalrymple is universally acclaimed as among the finest writers of his generation. His first book, In Xanadu, was instantly recognised as a classic, and has sold over 100,000 copies in paperback. It was described by Scotland on Sunday as ‘one of the best travel books produced in the last twenty years’.

His second book, City of Djinns, was described by George Mackay Brown as ‘the best travel book I have ever read’.

Of his third book, From the Holy Mountain, Eric Newby said: ‘everything a really good travel book should be: witty, learned and also very funny’ . --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Author

I first heard about James Achilles Kirkpatrick on a visit to India in February 1997. I had just finished a book on the Middle East, four years' work, and was burnt out. I went to Hyderabad to get away from my desk and recover. It was while wandering around the city that I stumbled upon the old British Residency, a vast crumbling Palladian villa.

The complex, I was told, was built by Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad between 1797 and 1805. Kirkpatrick had gone out to India full of ambition, intent on making his name in the subjection of a nation; but instead it was he who was conquered, not by an army but by a Hyderabadi noblewoman called Khair un-Nissa. I was told how in 1800, after falling in love with Khair, Kirkpatrick not only married her, and adopted Mughal clothes and ways of living, but had actually converted to Islam and had became a double agent working against the East India Company and for the Hyderabadis. I thought it was the most fascinating story, and by the time I left the garden I was captivated. The whole tale simply seemed so different from what one expected of the British in India, and I spent the rest of my time in Hyderabad pursuing anyone who could tell me more. Little did I know that it was to be the start of an obsession that would completely take over my life for the next five years.

Beneath the familiar story of the British conquest and rule of the subcontinent, I found that there lay a far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story- about the Indian conquest of the British imagination. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century it became clear that 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 slowly shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, and adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philosophy, taking harems and adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they slowly came to replace- what Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called 'chutnification'. Moreover, the White Mughals were far from an insignificant minority. The wills of the period show that in the 1780's over one third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives.

Hyderabad in 1800 was a frontier town a bit like post-war Berlin: a city alive with intrigue and conspiracy, where the British and the French were vying with each other for dominance. The night after Kirkpatrick had finally managed to surround and disarm the French in Hyderabad, he had gone to a victory party. It was there that he glimpsed Khair un-Nissa for the first time. Despite the fact that she was only fifteen, was in purdah, a Sayyida (or descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), and already engaged to a leading Mughal nobleman, the two fell in love, and as a contemporary chronicle put it: "When the story of their amours became public, a general sensation took place. The relations of the Begum were naturally very furious and for a time the life of the lovers was in danger, but their passion for one another was not of a character as could be restrained by fear or disappointment. Every obstacle thrown in their way only seemed to make it stronger & stronger …"

As the scandal spread, Khair un-Nissa's grandfather threatened to go to the central mosque and raise the Muslims of Hyderabad against the British, and Kirkpatrick was ordered by his superiors to stop seeing the girl. But what none of the men knew- and what all the women in the harem were all too aware of- was that Khair was now three months pregnant.

For four years I worked away reconstructing the story. It was like watching a Polaroid develop, as the outlines slowly established themselves and the colour began to fill in the remaining white spaces. I learned how Khair had given birth to a son, Sahib Allum ('Little Lord of the World'), and daughter, Sahib Begum ('Lady of High Lineage'). To accommodate his new family James began to design the Palladian villa I had seen, complete with British-style park and grazing sheep. Behind it, he constructed a Mughal zenana for Khair built in marble with fountains and a Mughal garden. For four years James slipped very happily between these two worlds: by day, he lived his official life with one language, and one set of clothes, while in the evening he would get into his kurta pyjamas, and step into the parallel world of his Mughal wife and his Urdu-speaking family. But it couldn't last, and inevitably this unlikely arcadia finally ended in tragedy: James died of fever and Khair was left widowed at 19. Later, she was seduced by Kirkpatrick's assistant and banished. Broken hearted, she soon wasted away.

The story of a family where three generations drifted between Christianity and Islam and back again, between suits and salvars, Mughal Hyderabad and Victorian London, seemed to me to raise huge questions: about Britishness and the nature of Empire, about faith, and about personal identity; indeed, about how far all of these mattered, and were fixed and immutable - or how far they were in fact flexible, tractable, negotiable. Yet clearly while the documentation surrounding Kirkpatrick's story was uniquely well-preserved, giving a window into a world that few realise ever existed, the situation itself was far from unusual.

The Kirkpatricks inhabited a world that was far more hybrid, and with far less clearly defined ethnic, national and religious borders, than we have all been conditioned to expect. At a time when respectable academics talk of a Clash of Civilisations, and East and West, Islam and Christianity appear to be engaged in another major confrontation, 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. They have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again.
William Dalrymple --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

'White Mughals' is the romantic and ultimately tragic tale of a passionate love affair that crossed and transcended all the cultural, religious and political boundaries of its time.

James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad when in 1798 he glimpsed Kahir un-Nissa – 'Most excellent among Women' – the great-niece of the Nizam's Prime Minister and a descendant of the Prophet. Kirkpatrick had gone out to India as an ambitious soldier in the army of the East India Company, eager to make his name in the conquest and subjection of the subcontinent. Instead, he fell in love with Khair and overcame many obstacles to marry her – not least of which was the fact that she was locked away in purdah and engaged to a local nobleman. Eventually, while remaining Resident, Kirkpatrick converted to Islam, and according to Indian sources even became a double-agent working for the Hyderabadis against the East India Company.

It is a remarkable story, involving secret assignations, court intrigue, harem politics, religious and family disputes. But such things were not unknown; from the early sixteenth century, when the Inquisition banned the Portuguese in Goa from wearing the dhoti, to the eve of the Indian mutiny, the 'white Mughals' who wore local dress and adopted Indian ways were a source of embarrassments to successive colonial administrations. William Dalrymple unearths such colourful figures as 'Hindoo Stuart', who travelled with his own team of Brahmins to maintain his temple of idols, and who spent many years trying to persuade the memsahibs of Calcutta to adopt the sari; and Sir David Ochterlony, Kirkpatrick's counterpart in Delhi, who took all thirteen of his wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of their own elephant.

In 'White Mughals', William Dalrymple discovers a world almost entirely unexplored by history, and places at its centre a compelling tale of love, seduction and betrayal. It possesses all the sweep and resonance of a great nineteenth-century novel, set against a background of shifting alliances and the manoeuvring of the great powers, the mercantile ambitions of the British and the imperial dreams of Napoleon. 'White Mughals', the product of five years' writing and research, triumphantly confirms Dalrymple's reputation as one of the finest writers at work today.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

William Dalrymple’s first book, In Xanadu, won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. His second, City of Djinns, won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. His third, From the Holy Mountain, was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize and the Thomas Cook Award. A collection of his pieces about India, The Age of Kali, was published in 1998.

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