William Dalrymple is a favourite author of mine so I was very happy when a friend of mine from Australia gifted me this book in August this year. Why it took me so long to read it is a puzzle. I started it and found it very slow going, put it aside and came back to it this last week.
The story which is self explanatory is about Zafar - the last of the great Mughal rulers who ruled India for nearly 350 years and the way the dynasty ended - in banishment, penury and senility with the Emperor not being given any status or position as befitted his stature. Zafar was the last in a long line of very eminent Mughals - Genghis Khan and Timur the Great being the two most well known. For much of British history in India this last Mughal was insignificant. He was a weak emperor ruled and influenced very much by others who surrounded him. He seemed indecisive and could not be seen to act independently. He also never wanted to take on the responsibility of what he started and all the time said that it was in the hands of God, specially when things turned disastrous.
This story is set in old Delhi which was the pivot of the Mughal dynasty of the time. In the Emperor's time the Muslims and Hindus lived in harmony, the Emperor himself had a mother who was Hindu and he was very tolerant of Hindu rituals and customs both within and outside his own home. Although by now a vassal of the British, he lived a life of considerable ease, not imposed on by the Britons or anyone else. The tension arose with the rise of fundamentalism amongst the Islamic ulema or clergy who saw the disintegration of Islam, the rise of Hindu influence going step by step with total British control and more importantly, what they perceived the conversion of Muslims and Hindus to the Christian faith. The destruction of Delhi and the Mughal dynasty were linked to the war which arose between the Muslims and the British rulers.
The callous murder of English men, women and children, the murder of Christian converts, the widespread looting that followed with no sense of justice and fairplay on both sides was horrific. The British murdered everyone in their path in a move which they saw would wipe the slate clean. For some officers in the Army it seemed to be a game of who could kill the most. Even those people who had given safe haven to fleeing English women and their families were not spared. They were killed merely for being Indian.
On the other hand the sepoys who ran berserk killed any Englishman or convert who crossed their path. The stories of rape were just stories and unlike other pictures of war, Englishwomen were not raped but the story was not the same when it came to the English army.
The violence depicted in this story is brutal and it was for me an eye opener. I had read of British atrocities in India when India was a colony but I never imagined anything on this scale in the 1800s. Detailed descriptions of the flight of English families who had lived in India for 30 or 40 years and who considered Delhi home was so sad, the loyalty of servants was incredible despite personal danger many did not leave their masters and were subsequently punished for it, and I especially liked the detailed footnotes which gave little snippets of information so very vital to the whole story.
Dalrymple was excelled himself once again.
Book reading and reviewing has taken a back seat this last week with a heavy workload. The Christmas gifts are still not finished and beginning to take on the look of a nightmare now as it has all got to be packed and ready by the 30th of this month. I have however been determined this year to become a little Christmassy around my own home (for the last three year I have not even put up the
tree. This year this is hopefully going to change!).