हर एक बात पे कहते हो तुम के “तु क्या है”?
तुम्हीं कहो के ये अन्दाज-ए-गुफ्तगू क्या है?
रगों मे दौडते फिरने के हम नहीं कायल
जब आँख ही से न टप्का तो फिर लहू क्या है?
– Mirza Ghalib
I wanted to start this post quoting something from the book itself, but since Ghalib features in the book so often and I love his ghazals, I thought why not with a couple of his couplets!?! And also would like to mention that as always I have been meaning to write about this book (not as a review but as my experience reading it!) for nearly a month now – I finished this book on 2nd January! Now that I have got around writing about it, hope its not too stale. As I’m typing these lines, I feel like I’m scavenging my mind of stale thoughts, hence the concern!
Well, let me start by quoting a short introduction of the main “cast” of the book – the Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.
The Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862)
The elderly Mughal Emperor – eldest but not favourite son of the Emperor Akbar Shah II – was a calligrapher, Sufi, theologian, patron of painters of miniatures, creator of gardens and a very serious mystical poet, but by the 1850s he held little day-to-day power beyond the still potent mystique attached to the Mughal dynasty and was in many ways ‘a chessboard king’. Though he was initially horrified by the rough and desperate sepoys who barged into his palace on 11 May 1857, Zafar ultimately agreed to give his blessing to the Uprising, seeing it as the only way to save his great dynasty from extinction. It was a decision he later came to regret bitterly.
Reading above lines, the first thought that came to my mind was that Bahadur Shah Zafar II shouldn’t have been made the emperor in the first place! No wonder he ended up being the last. Reason? Well, just look at the words used to describe him – “calligrapher, Sufi [he was a “Sufi saint” to many], theologian,…, and a very serious mystical poet”. And contrast that with how he was described as an Emperor – “a chessboard king”. For the most part, the book makes a sombre reading, especially when you start sympathising with the characters, like the Emperor! But as a historical book, based on many of the facts uncovered for the first time, this is a brilliant piece of writing that grips you from the beginning till the end. I started reading this book at Kathmandu Airport, read all the way to London, and completed by the time I arrived in York by train a few days later.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, my plan was to read this book while I was in Delhi – I badly wanted to make this book my guide to Delhi. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and more I read the book later on my way back to London and to York, more I regretted for not being able to do so. This book would be a wonderful guide to the “Old Delhi” and the surrounding areas if you have a few weeks to spare and would like to explore (the remains of) the Mughal Delhi. I would have loved to do so.
When I get a chance to visit Delhi next, especially for at least a couple of weeks, I’m surely going to take The Last Mughal with me and try to “explore” Delhi through this book again!! And, I hope I’ll be able to cope with the Delhi way of life better on my next visit than I did last time!
Since I have starting writing about this book, I might as well mention a few things that stood out. The description of the destruction of Delhi in the aftermath of the British “victory” makes a very sombre reading. There are places in the book where Dalrymple mentions what has happened to some of the Mughal landmarks in Delhi, and what state are they in at present – a lot of that makes you very sad. I am not from Delhi or an Indian, but still I felt quite sad knowing one of the major landmarks in Mughal Delhi is now being used as an urinal!
One of the themes of this book, as I saw it, is the comparison Dalrymple makes between the conflict between the British and the Mughals/Muslims during 1857 and the present day conflict between the “West” and the Muslims. The labelling of the rebels fighting against the British during 1857 as Muslim fanatics and terrorists, and targeted persecution of the Muslims in Delhi by the British in the aftermath could be compared to many modern day conflicts targeted especially against the Muslims.
Dalrymple’s position, it seems to me, is that of a person who sympathises with the Muslim world, not just in present day conflicts but clearly in the 1857 conflict as well. When you read this book – although there were atrocities committed by the rebels early on in the 1857 conflict – it becomes clear as to which party was responsible for the worst of the atrocities during 1857 and a number of years afterwards. In among all the evils, the main character of the book, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, comes as a person who was more interested in preserving the tradition of his forefathers, their culture, art, literature etc. than expanding his empire. He had built a culturally and religiously diverse capital in Delhi where Hindus and Muslims lived a peaceful and tolerant life. He had even banned the slaughter of cows by the Muslims in Delhi so as to not offend his Hindu subjects!
Dalrymple clearly thinks the British (and the “West” generally) have failed to learn from their past mistakes, especially during the colonial era, when they “intruded” into other cultures and tried to impose their own, without much regard to the offence they might have caused. I just want to put up the last couple of paragraphs from the book here, which I think is very relevant at present, given the conflicts the “West” is involved in for a number of years now…or should I say for a number of centuries now!?!
Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war. Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered. As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of ‘incarnate fiends’ and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with ‘pure evil’. Again Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked – as they interpret it – by mindless fanatics.
Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in [Bahadur Shah] Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughals’ pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.
As we have seen in our time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so dramatically radicalises the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it. (emphasis added)