The Last Mughal

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple, an excellent piece of research into the time that, in many ways gave birth to the nationalist movement in India. The book recreates the one of the largest mutinies of the modern word, the 1857 uprising. Starting from the events that led to the uprising, the book covers in detail, both sides of the story. Using both European as well as Indian sources, translating the mutiny papers for almost the first time.

The author looks at the lives of prominent people of Delhi and how they played their part in the mutiny. The fall of the food bazaar in Delhi to the loss of large Muhallas where the most well educated folks of the time lived. The best potrayal comes from none other than Ghalib and his ghazals. Ghalib, who lived in Delhi before the mutiny under the Zaffar and later as a protected subject under the English crown captures the life and attitude of the time in his ghazals.

In my opinion Dalrymple is a fine historian with a skill to write and love towards the Indian Subcontinent. In all his writings – books, articles – he points out the fabrication of facts in todays time by presenting and analyzing various events. Hindu-Muslim rivalry is often attributed to the Mughal invasion, Dalrymple in his book presents a narrative citing official court documents of the time. Here is one excerpt which personally is ranks high in my list of favorites:

“….the fact that just over half the soldiers, and almost all the vast support staff, were not British, but Indian. It was, all in all, a very odd sort of religious war, where a Muslim emperor was pushed into rebellion against his Christian oppressors by a mutinous army of overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, who came to him of their own free will (and initially against his) to ask for the barakat of a Muslim blessing and the leadership of the Mughal they regarded as their legitimate ruler. It is even odder that one of the greatest threats to the cohesiveness and unity of the Mughal’s new forces was the arrival of groups of Muslim jihadis who eventually came to make up at least half of the rebel army in Delhi; and that when the British counter-attacked against those forces they did so by raising against the Mughal a new army that consisted largely of Pathan and Punjabi Muslim irregulars. As the casualty figures on the Delhi Mutiny memorial show, no less than a third of the ‘British’ casualties among officers, and fully 82 per cent among other ranks, were classified as ‘native’. By the very end of the siege, by the time the last reinforcements reached the Ridge from the Punjab, the ‘British’ force was probably around four-fifths Indian. If the Uprising in Delhi started as a contest between the British and a largely Hindu sepoy army drawn mainly from Avadh, it ended as a fight between a mixed rebel force, at least half of which were civilian jihadis, taking on an army of British-paid Sikh and Muslim mercenaries from the North West Frontier and the Punjab.”

Apart from the historical narrative of the events, Dalrymple beautifully paints Delhi and how the once beautiful city became the city of the dead. His other book, City of Djinns captures the rise and fall of Delhi, a city that has always sprung back to life like a phoenix.

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