This past week I went to hear the famed Scottish historian and travel writer William Dalrymple deliver a live reading from a couple of his works, including The Last Mughal, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, on the occasion of Penguin’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
I imagined a charismatic, perhaps forgivably pompous man at a lectern, a master of the subtle arts of storytelling: pitch, tone, pace, gesture, and expression. I was hardly disappointed; even his slight rotundity emerging from his long, white kurta and the beads of sweat on his large forehead fit the prescribed image of a craftsman raconteur.
The flamboyance of Dalrymple’s live performance is exceeded only by the fine tune of his prose. And The Last Mughal, so I am told by those who’ve read him more widely than I, is probably his driest book. It is a deeply practical, well-researched and well-imagined history of the Indian uprising of 1857 (the word ‘uprising’ is often substituted in the history books by ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’ or ‘first war for independence’).
Dalrymple covers the full lay of the land of Delhi in the mid-nineteenth century, from the political court and palace intrigue of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (the title character) to the martial strategies of the British high command.
But it is the depiction of the men and women in between these two poles that really grants the reader a sense of the vitality of historical Delhi: the merchants and tradesmen of Shahjahanabad; the rebellious Brahmin Hindu sepoys; the newspaper editors of the city; the Mughal court poets; the English civilian administrators and their families; the fiery Protestant missionaries.
The full breadth of life of the city is overturned by Dalrymple’s lengthy inquisition into how and why this massive and popular rebellion of the native forces under British command occurred, how the dying embers of the once-great Mughal royal lineage came to reconcile with its almost inescapable fate, and how the vengeful British besieged and finally took down the mighty walls of the great city of Delhi and in doing so altered the course of India’s history forever.
And to credit Dalrymple’s robust sense of place where it is due, his (and as importantly, his many Indian grad-student researchers’) assiduous efforts in the Indian National Archives—poring over the famed Mutiny Papers, which consist of the municipal records of Delhi during the summer of 1857 as compiled by Mughal royal officials and preserved by the British after their victory in the bloody siege—provide, to use an apt phrase, the most fodder for his storytelling cannon.
It is impressive, vivid and exhaustive; maybe not a must-read for all travellers to India (not every traveller is wedded to historical enquiry, especially one so specific), but canonical for anyone who plans to tramp around the historical sites of Delhi, and for any visitor who can’t hope to know this place without understanding one of the most significant events in the history of the Indian people.
Dalrymple is the author of seven books about India, although before I got a hold of The Last Mughal, he was known to me only for his non-India work, a wonderful account of the journey of two sixth-century monks on foot across the Byzantine Empire, From the Holy Mountain (1998).
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006