From book to film, William Dalrymple’s ‘The White-Mughal’ disrupts the standard narrative


William Dalrymple’s landmark 2002 book White Mughals is, now, at long last, a film near you. Sunil Khilnani many years ago unfairly dismissed Dalrymple’s writing as “Bollywood history”; but one of the chief virtues of White Mughals is precisely its cinematic vividness, a quality that clearly recommended it to Hollywood producers when it was announced, in 2011, that Ralph Fiennes would direct and star in a film adaptation.

Lord Voldemort in the Deccan has, sadly, yet to materialise. But we now can enjoy an hour-long documentary, The White Mughal, narrated by Dalrymple himself. Screened in England in September last year, it was broadcast in India on the Discovery Channel.

An Utopian overview

White Mughals, the book, offered a capacious, 600-page overview of a time in India that can seem extraordinarily utopian. Its central character was James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident in Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805. Kirkpatrick not only converted to Islam to marry his Indian lover Khair-un-Nissa, mother of his two children, but also wore Indian clothes, spoke Persian, and wrote Urdu poetry.

But he was simply one of a procession of early colonial British men who became “Indian” through love or transculturation. In Dalrymple’s book, Kirkpatrick was preceded by figures such as Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident in Delhi who lived the life of a Mughal gentleman and insisted on being addressed by his title Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the State); George Thomas, an Irishman who ruled over his own state in the Mewatti region west of Delhi, took the name Jehaz Sahib, and forgot how to speak English; and Major General Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, who travelled around the country with his Indian bibi and a Brahmin retinue who prepared food for his Hindu family.

Dalrymple argued that these men were more the norm than the exception in the early days of British colonialism; they provide an important corrective to racist assumptions about the relation between Christian and Islamic “worlds” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Dalrymple wrote the book’s last words: “East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again.”

Much the same utopian message pervades The White Mughal, which Dalrymple concludes with a paean to a forgotten “period of fusion and hybridity” that gives the lie to today’s narratives of “conflicting civilisations.” The documentary shrinks the wide canvas of the book and foregrounds the extraordinary story of Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa. This jodi is made to bear the burden of a tragic tale of historical transition, from a time of cross-cultural mingling to a new regime of intolerance that resulted in the lovers’ ostracism and, arguably, their early deaths. In the process, the documentary affords us tantalising glimpses of some of the story’s most haunting, culturally hybrid locations.

These include the ruins of the Rang Mahal zenana quarters, built by Kirkpatrick, in which Khair-un-Nissa gave birth to their daughter Sahib Begum (and in which she also died at the young age of 27), as well as the extraordinary Residency building in which Kirkpatrick lived, a British-style Palladian mansion with columns, chandeliers, and soaring staircase. In Dalrymple’s reading, the Residency building is a metaphor for Kirkpatrick himself – a seemingly British production that was in fact “an Anglo-Indian collaboration,” built by Madrasi master masons under Kirkpatrick’s guidance. And in that word, “collaboration,” lies the rub.


Power games

We might want to view Kirkpatrick and his ilk simply through the rosy-eyed lens of “hybridity and fusion.” But, as Dalrymple’s very phrase “White Mughal” suggests, most of these men were powerful, and the Indians with whom they “collaborated” – not just local nizams but also servants and labourers – were for the most part subordinate to them. Even the “love” they felt for their Indian bibis was shaped by colonialist power dynamics.

Like White Mughals, the documentary presents Kirkpatrick’s and Khair’s union as a stirring love story – this time with the aid of a soundtrack thick with classical violins. But it was, of course, a love story shot through with the calculations of power in a colonialist setting, not least by Khair’s own mother who seems to have forced her to break off her engagement with a high-ranking Muslim man to begin an affair with Kirkpatrick.

Later, after Kirkpatrick’s death, Khair was induced to become sexually involved with the new British Resident of Hyderabad, Henry Russell. There is a larger story here – one that is hard to flesh out given the relative paucity of detail about Khair’s own life – that is less utopian and more dictated by realpolitik and a hint of colonialist droit-de-seigneur. The same can be said of many of the other white Mughals in Dalrymple’s book.

Octherlony’s and Thomas’s choice to go “native” was less a sign of straightforward love for another culture than an embrace of power and its perks. And Charles Hindoo Stuart’s Brahmin retinue shows how the “Indian” culture to which British men adapted rewarded them with privileged positions in social formations shot through with the inequities of caste and gender. Their becoming Indian was arguably not a riposte to British power in India but one of the preconditions for it.

At a time when the idea of India is becoming increasingly and shrillyshuddh, however, Dalrymple’s story of forbidden cross-cultural love in pre-Raj Hyderabad needs to be told. Hyderabad, a sovereign state that did not join India in August 1947 but was forcibly annexed by the army a year later, has long been a fly in the ointment of dominant narratives of “India.” The protests at the University of Hyderabad over the tragic death of Rohith Vemula continue the city’s rich tradition of resistance. Dalrymple’s version of Hyderabad, for all its violins, offers another story at odds with the official version of India.

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