on 7 January 2005
As an avid reader of history, you once in a while come across a book that is so vivd that you are immediately transported back to another world and time that you are reluctant to leave once you have completed the last page. I must admit that I was enticed to read this book following some excellent reviews and the photogenic cover but was totally unprepared as to just how compelling a read this would be. Despite the 500 or so pages, I found this book impossible to put down.
Having read a few books on the Empire of late, "The White Mughals" deals with a hitherto unknown aspect where Europeans of the 18th Century embraced Indian culture with vigor. As Dalrymple explains, this was very much the norm as many white settlers becoming Hindu or Muslim and taking Indian wives. Whilst the author laces the main theme of his story with fascinating footnotes, the book largely concerns the romance between the East India Company's governor in Hyderabad, James Kirkpatrick and the beautiful Indian noblewoman Khair un-Nissa. Having set the theme with a detailed account of the politics of the Nizam of Hyderabad's court, vivid descriptions of Indian festivals, gardens and architecture as well as the machinations of Richard Wellesley, the Governor General of the East India Company and brother to the future Duke of Wellington, the book really comes into it's own with the account of the tragic relationship between the two central characters. Not only is this book excellently researched, Dalrymple has unearthed a wonderful story which he has put across with aplomb.
Having ploughed my way through innumerable history books over the years ranging from the Romans through to the First World War, this is one of the very best books that I have read and cannot recommend it highly enough. This is a book that will challenge your preception of the role played by Britain in India and I would be intrigued to learn just many people will be inspired to visit Hyderabad having enjoyed this book. The "White Mughals" is demonstrative of how history should be written. A fantastic achievement.
on 31 May 2006
This is a marvellous book, history at its most appealing as documentation of a period and as gripping narrative. At its core is the love story and marriage between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the East India Company's Hyderabad resident at the end of the 18th century, and Khair Un-Nissa, the grand-daughter of a high ranking official at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Kirkpatrick's significance is that he represents a little-known phenomenon: the adoption by some Europeans of the religion, manners and dress of Islam or Hinduism while (in the case of the book's protagonists) retaining their essential Britishness. Around this theme of cross-cultural migration and the personal narrative of the Kirkpatrick family whose children were sent off to England at a young age and never saw their parents again, William Dalrymple has woven a marvellous tapestry of Hyderabad court life, East India Company attitudes and Anglo-Indian intrigue. The story is peopled with some fascinating human beings including the Nizam's Prime Minister Aristu Jah and his assistant and later successor Mir Alam; the William Palmers father and son who appear to have achieved as complete an identity with their host country as it is possible to imagine; Marquess Wellesley, the bullying Governor General of the day and elder brother of the (later) Duke of Wellington; Khair's mother Sharaf un-Nissa who lived on for decades after her daughter's death and whose late correspondence with her granddaughter is one of the book's most moving moments; and James Achilles Kirkpatrick himself, a decent and honourable man, anointed son of the Nizam, at first willing instrument of the Governor General's policies but later disillusioned by the latter's excesses and prepared to counter them. It is through the sources he has unearthed, in particular the correspondence, that Dalrymple succeeds so brilliantly in bringing these forgotten people back to life so that their motives and passions engage us across the gulf of two centuries and profound changes in social assumptions and attitudes. The story is imbued with the author's own evident love of India and its people and his ability to steep himself in his subject so that we feel we breathe the air of the country.
Anyone who has the slightest affinity for India or an interest in the colonial Anglo-Indian relationship will love this book.
on 20 March 2004
Beautifully written and very moving story of a romance between an Englishman and an Indian girl in the 18th century. The book provides an insight into how different British and Indian history could have been, had not the greed, ignorance and prejudice of a powerful few prevailed over the instincts of sensitive individuals like Kirkpatrick and many of his contemporaries.
An incredible amount of research must have gone into this book and Dalrymple's love and respect for India comes through on every page.
My only complaint is that he goes into too much detail about the politics of 18th century India -- this could possibly put off readers not familiar with India and its history. Basically at the heart of the book is the love story of Kirkpatrick and Khair -un-Nissa and several other couples like them -- and the very intricate descriptions of the politics tends to slow down the momentum.
But despite that, White Mughals is an amazing book that I would recommend to everyone -- don't be daunted by its size!
on 17 August 2004
I can't praise this book enough: an expertly-research, truly beguiling work of history, which brings its vibrant, glittering cast of characters to life. It is a compelling page-turner that is nevertheless neither simplified nor over-dramatised; poignant without sentimentality, analytical but never dry.
Dalrymple assembles and narrates his material with a deft touch; at every turn, his account is punctuated with the words and images of those at the drama's heart, drawn from their letters, diaries, portraits and architecture. What emerges is the tragic and immensely involving tale of cross-cultural love in Hyderabad at the very beginning of the nineteenth century: that of James Kirkpatrick, a prominent East India Company official, and Khair al-Nissa, his wealthy, high-ranking Indian wife, clothed in all the human detail the sources can provide.
What elevates the story above simple doomed romance, however, is the way Dalrymple interweaves their tale with the wider picture of the British relationship with India at the turn of the nineteenth century. Displaying the pair against a backdrop of both earlier and contemporary liaisons, examining changing attitudes as demonstrated in letters, monographs and paintings, Dalrymple makes a evocative case for Kirkpatrick and Khair al-Nissa as scions of forgotten age, when the British abroad were something quite different from their much-parodied mid- and late-19th century counterparts, dressing for dinner in the jungle.
These are the dying days of the EIC, when the opportunist merchants gradually lost out to the career militarists, when wide-scale annexation of subcontinental territories and the increasing segregation of colonial Britons from the populace around them began. Crucially, Dalrymple shows that, contrary to popular perception, the Raj did not spring into existence fully-formed, nor were British attitudes always infused with smug racist superiority. Kirkpatrick was, sadly, caught between eras; he came from a generation for whom adapting to the world in which one was living did not imply a deserting one irreconcilable cultural sphere for another. In the world of Kirkpatrick's youth, there were no hermetically-sealed categories of 'Englishness' and 'Indianness'. EIC agents based in one of the Company's outposts rarely expected to return home; many spent the majority of their lives in India, and had for centuries been happy to marry local women and to a greater or lesser degree adopt Hindu or Muslim practices. In this, they were simply following a trend that had affected foreigners to the subcontinent right down to the Portuguese who settled in Goa: India in all its diversity had an immense capacity for assimilation and accommodation of newcomers.
But by Kirkpatrick's day, change was coming - and in _White Mughals_ we see how the new attitudes overtook Kirkpatrick's domestic bliss. The political and social opprobrium that their marriage attracted may be seen as a microcosm for the gradual advent of cultural divisions that would so mar the Empire. The reasons behind this are complex, and for the most part explored convincingly by Dalrymple: greed for territory and military success, individual ambition and personality clashes, and the increased profile of British activities in India back home all contributed to an unprecedented level of pressure and scrutiny upon those 'in the field', and a growing conviction that relationships between Britons and Indians were politically problematic and (spurred in later decades by increased missionary activity) scandalously immoral. Nor does Dalrymple overstate the case for the transformation, or downplay exceptions to his model; relations between foreign merchants and Indian principalities were never unambiguous or completely harmonious, even in the early period.
Most importantly, though, what Dalrymple's work makes triumphantly clear is that relationships such as Kirkpatrick and Khair al-Nissa's were far from the aberration that shocked Victorian historians (or, later, those with an anti-Raj agenda) have made them out to be: they were a widespread, and widely-accepted, mode of cultural interaction in a time of different imperatives.
All in all, this is enjoyable, vital work, filled with rich detail and fascinating anecdotes that illuminate the central argument and enhance the reading experience at every turn. Wonderful.
on 7 January 2003
When I first got the book I was a bit alarmed - it looked like I'd bought a historical romantic novel. Not a bit!
It feels as though Darylmple has built a web around the central theme of the relationship between Kirkpatrick and Kahir-un-Nissa. Certainly the relationship itself would have been intruiging as the lady was descended from a very orthodox family but the author explores a whole raft of social, political and military history issues from 18th century India : Tipu Sultan of Bengal, the Marathas, the decline of the Mughal empire, the British and of course the domain of the Daccani rulers centered at Hydrabad.
The writing is marvellous. Darylmple has also done a very scholarly piece of work. Throughout there are excellent references and footnotes. It also appears to be a bit of a personal quest for him that started at with his "City of Djinns" and has come to a very interesting juncture here.
I had wanted to read something like this for a long time and will certainly persue some of Darylmple's references to learn more about this period of Indian and indeed British history.
on 12 July 2003
A fascinating and absorbing read which takes your imagination to a different time and place in history. This book has everything, full of interesting facts, people and places, romance, politics and intrigue all thoroughly researched.
My next visit to Hyderabad, my place of birth, will not be the same. A city which has always had a real sense of history, but now thanks to William Dalrymple, the untold lives and places of eighteenth century Hyderabad has been bought to life.
It is always a delight to read William Dalrymple's books and I look forward to his next book.
on 8 December 2014
This book zooms in on the life of James Kilpatrick, the British 'resident' at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad around 1800. Dalrymple's thesis is that before things were spoilt in the early years of the 19th century, the British in 'India' were enjoying good relationships with the local population, including intimate relationships. Sadly, a bunch of narrow-minded proto-Victorian imperialists-avant-la-lettre managed to destroy the idyll by making life miserable for people like Kilpatrick who were involved in mixed race relationships - or for the fruits of those relationships (the East India Company actually stopped hiring mixed race people altogether).
Is this a good book? Well, it is certainly interesting and colorfully written - albeit too bulky at 500 pages. I think it would have been better had Dalrymple expanded much less on very difficult to follow family backgrounds of the various players (maybe it's just me, but with those names it all got tangled up in my head), and a bit more on great contemporary events such as the wars against Tipu Sultan ('the tiger of Mysore') & against the Marathas. All things considered, this is still a book that many people will greatly enjoy; for me it was just a bit too long-winded.