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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #45 (November 8, 2005), page 16.

Strangers in a strange land

White Mughals

By William Dalrymple

Penguin Books, 2004

Paperback, 459 pages, $16.00

By Doug Spangle

Times were interesting in India at the turn of the 19th century. The Islamic Mughal Empire had fractured into several kingdoms in the process of decay; the colonial forces of France and England were maneuvering to gain prestige with the Mughals by providing military and political assistance and exploiting their influence locally while competing globally. Napoleon was making inroads toward world domination and the English attempted to thwart him at every turn.

These Europeans had already been a presence in India for many years, and, despite xenophobia and religious differences with the Islamic ruling classes, had assimilated to a considerable degree. Many, and maybe most of the Europeans had native paramours; mixed-blood children were common. Sexually transmitted diseases were endemic. The interplay of cultures, though, was complex and interesting. East and West had much to teach the other, and it was a period rich in cross-fertilization.

William Dalrymple focuses his story on the Kirkpatrick family, which came to India with the English military presence. Three half-brothers had careers in India after their fatherís service there. William, the eldest, was the English Resident in two Indian courts. James, the youngest, inherited his half-brotherís post at the Court of Hyderabad and proved a highly effective operative. He had also "gone native," not only being fluent in several languages but adopting native dress and manners. He married a woman of the local aristocracy. Dalrymple focuses further on their relationship, their veering fortunes, and those of their children.

They were married with the connivance of her female relatives, who despite custom and religious differences seem to have seen advantage in marriage to a handsome and highly placed man, foreign though he was. James Kirkpatrick, too, encountered resistance from an increasingly racist English administration. Though his career was highly successful, he died relatively young, and the tragedy of their romance fell upon his wifeís head. His enemies, both English and native, seized his property and were able to withhold hers as well. Before she died in exile from her native soil at a pitifully young age, a victim of the xenophobia of both the English and of her own people, she was able to have their two children sent back to Kirkpatrickís family in England. They saw neither their mother nor the land of their birth again.

Dalrymple was able to trace the childrenís fates. The son, after being horribly injured in an accident, was to become a poet and devotee of Coleridgeís metaphysics. The daughter caught the eye of a young Thomas Carlyle, and lived into her late eighties.

William Dalrymple has, in the past fifteen years, specialized in rescuing the vestiges of old British India from the oblivion of a nation that is careening into modern nationalism at full speed. White Mughals presents challenges to a casual reader, however. Though Dalrymple is a skilled and entertaining writer, focus is a problem. The book must portray two bygone societies that are very different from the present ones before the story can go forward. There are many names and titles, both English and Indian, difficult for an uninstructed person to keep track of, and quite a lot of historical exposition takes place before the romance can be developed. The authorís task has been to develop his book on both an historical and a human plane. He succeeds, but sometimes with a visible effort.

Itís all ultimately worth it. Thereís much to be learned about colonialism here, and the human value that transcends politics and bigotry, even if the price for such is heartbreak and sorrow. None of it is as simple as it once seemed. William Dalrymple tells this complex story with strength and grace.

 

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