Thursday, January 30, 2003

broken taboos

William Dalrymple tells the previously unwritten history of the love of pre-Victorian Englishmen for India and Indian women

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in January 2003).

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, by William Dalrymple. HarperCollins. £20 ($32)

IN THE PRE-VICTORIAN 18th century, at least half the Englishmen in India had relationships with Indian women and a third of them left money in their wills to their Indian wives or girlfriends. Several East India Company officials converted to Islam or adopted Hindu rites and rituals, and never left the Subcontinent. But we rarely hear of these people.

"It is as if the Victorians succeeded in colonizing not only India, but also, more permanently, our imaginations, to the exclusion of all other images of the Indo-British encounter," writes William Dalrymple in his study of interracial relationships in colonial India, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.

This book is about those Englishmen who "went native" and its centrepiece is the love affair and marriage of James Kirkpatrick, a Briton living in the late 18th century at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, a wealthy provincial ruler, and Khair un-Nissa, the granddaughter of a first cousin of Hyderabad's prime minister.

Dalrymple chanced upon this fascinating bit of history in 1997, while he was walking around the ruins of the old British Residency in Hyderabad. Intrigued, he decided to pursue the story. On the last day of his final research visit to Hyderabad, he hit the mother lode. He found an autobiography by Khair un-Nissa's first cousin written right after the marriage of Kirkpatrick and the young woman.

White Mughals is well-researched--so much so that it reads like a novel, ironically, a Victorian one. But nothing in the book is made up. Dalrymple's exhaustive research of documents, letters and diaries from the 18th century puts him squarely inside the world of his subjects.

The writing is crisp and the footnotes resonate with Dalrymple's acerbic wit. He writes, for instance, that one of the contraception methods used in Hyderabad then was "smearing the entire penis with tar." His footnote: "It is unclear from the sources at what temperature the tar was meant to be applied. One presumes that if applied hot it would make a very effective contraceptive indeed."

Dalrymple includes true stories about a host of Englishmen whose lives became inextricably bound to the Subcontinent. Among them was the British Resident in Delhi, David Ochterlony, who preferred to be addressed by his full Mughal title "Nasir-ud daula," loved smoking his hookahs and would take all 13 of his Indian consorts out for an evening stroll, each on the back of an elephant. The equally eccentric Charles "Hindoo" Stuart walked every morning from his house to bathe in and worship the Ganges, according to Hindu custom.

Many Englishmen had liaisons with Indian women, but Kirkpatrick got into trouble for his affair. From the 1780s a sterner morality had replaced the sexual openness of the preceding decades. The East India Company, once a band of traders, was becoming a dominant, repressive, colonial force and Lord Wellesley, governor-general from 1798-1805, exemplified these changing attitudes. Wellesley was enraged by the behaviour of Kirkpatrick, whom he suspected might be a double agent for Hyderabad's ruler.

Intriguing as all these episodes are, White Mughals leaves some issues unexamined. British men bedded and wedded Indian women, but British women (at least in Dalrymple's book) didn't do the same with Indian men. Besides, all this intermingling seems to have occurred in the principalities of rich nawabs and maharajahs. For a servant of the East India Company, an India posting was the route to riches.

And who wouldn't want to live the lavish life of the nawabs and maharajahs with their gorgeous clothes, platoons of elephants, bevies of Nautch girls (dancer courtesans) and armies of servants? Kirkpatrick himself fathered a son with a "dark girl," as he refers to her, by which he means a woman who was not from the nobility, unlike Khair un-Nissa. She, and presumably the child from his affairs, received no legacy or any mention in his will.

To be fair, Dalrymple does state that Kirkpatrick's extreme emotional attachment to Khair un-Nissa and their children "illustrates how far the British brought with them to India a morality that was determined as much by class as by race." He could have explored this aspect further. But Dalrymple wants to make a point: The theory of the clash of civilizations is simplistic, convenient, racist and untrue. He does this spectacularly well.