The conflict between imperialism and religious fundamentalism that has jeopardized the world, is deep-rooted in blood, and has a history that is more than 150 years old. William Dalrymple brings forth stories from the past, and elucidates this strife in ‘The Last Mughal’, in an insightful manner. The book is not an assembly of historical archives, rather the archives woven into a tale that repaints the anachronistic India of 1857, and the series of events that spawned the Revolt of 1857 – the battle between the British Imperial Rule, and the en mass Indians.
Dalrymple presents an unbiased perspective on the Uprising of 1857, telling the story of the revolt from both sides. Very impressively, he explains that it was not one, but many a reasons, stacked over years that instigated the uprising. On one hand he describes the Indian perspective of the revolt, narrating the stories of rampant Christian proselytism, unjustified British policies of land and property, and the linchpin of the revolt – forcing Indian soldiers (sepoys as called by the British) to bite off pig and cow fat greased cartridges, hurting the sentiments of Hindus and Muslims alike. The latter reason also led the revolt to be called as the Sepoy Mutiny. On the other hand, he also presents an intense picture of the atrocities suffered by the British officials, and their families at the hands of the rebels, during the initial period of the revolt. Indians suffered two ways; first at the hands of their own countrymen, the mutineers who massacred Christian proselytes, and second at the hands of the British who unleashed vengeance for their beloveds. The book purely describes the story of the common man, caught up tragically in a bloody upheaval.
The backdrop of the tale is the alluring old Delhi, upholding the grandeur of the Mughal dynasty, and presenting the prodigal lifestyle of the city.There is a dedicated chapter in the book that emphasizes the stark difference in the strict military life of the British in Delhi, and the rather laid-out lives of the Delhiwallahs. In the quaint Mughal capital, lived the last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar II. A frail old man aged 82 at the time of the revolt; Zafar has always been looked upon as a pliant puppet in history. Dalrymple gives a vivid account of the Zafar that the world has been little aware of. He beautifully describes Zafar as a gifted poet and calligrapher who created, and nourished a court of artisans, musicians, orators, writers, and poets like Zauq, Ghalib and Azurda. Zafar, having a Hindu mother, was also the upholder of religious harmony. He is also accountable for some of the finest monuments of the Mughal era, and for hailing yet another cultural renaissance of India. Zafar was a king with simplistic ideas on life, rather than a tyrant who wished to annex and vanquish. Dalrymple beautifully describes the Mughal court, the key members associated with it, and how they influenced the emperor. He also presents an account of the royal family, and how the emperor’s favorite queen, Zeenat Mahal played a paramount role in his life.
While the book narrates the artistic splendor of the Mughal dynasty in its old age, it also holds at its heart, the story of the demeaning political arena of this period. Zafar had forfeited real political power to the East India Company. Strewn with a bunch of heirs, conspiring and belligerent for fading power, the royal family was amidst a crisis. Zafar was at the throne of this poorly controlled kingdom. Despite this, the collaborated Hindu-Muslim rebels chose him to lead them in the war against the British. More than a leader, Zafar was to be a consenting tool for the rebels to wage terror against the British army. Dalrymple quotes Zafar’s qualms at this proposition of the rebels, ranging from fear to pain to agony. He also quotes excerpts that prove Zafar’s failure to lead the rebels, the lack of food for the mutineers, and the gradual tiff between the mutiny leaders. Not only was it Zafar’s incapability, for what could an octogenarian do, but also the mismanagement and spinelessness on the part of the rebel leaders, added with the infidelity on the part of Zeenat Mahal and other members of the emperor’s household, that led to the final siege of Delhi, the imprisonment of Zafar, and his ultimate exile to Myanmar.
The book also describes the fall and destruction of Delhi, post its capture. The city was badly leveled of its forts and buildings, leaving behind bare and disserted lanes, markets and streets. Dalrymple further ventures the reader into the trial of Zafar by the East India Company. This is one of the most interesting points in the book, wherein he puts forward numerous facts that point a finger at British craftsmanship of fallacy. It was never proved if the Company was legally entitled to try the Mughal emperor, forget about charging him of deceit and mutiny, and master minding the revolt, which was claimed to be aimed at placing Muslim rule at the prime in the world! Not only was Zafar unjustly tried, the Hindu-Muslim unity that had been the cynosure of the Mughal era was brutally crushed now. The British proclaimed that the revolt was an unscrupulous Islamic fundamentalist plan; the truth however was that the revolt was of upper-caste Hindu origin that bloomed in Meerut, and was later joined by diffused groups of people across the country that included the Muslims as well. This lead to Hindu-Muslim polarization that conflagrated the country during independence, and continues to do so, time and again.
The Last Mughal is more than just a book on history. No construal of the uprising is as gallant as this one. William Dalrymple time travels the past, and helps you see the glory and the misery of that time. It helps to understand some of the most powerful lessons of history, and clarifies a lot of speculations about the Indo-British relations during the revolt. The book is full of footnotes, excerpts, and notes that speak of the commendable research involved, right from Delhi to Myanmar. It is fascinating that such an intense read can be so amusing at the same time; this is the skill of Dalrymple. He does not weave a story, he weaves magic.