Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kyi May Kaung's review of William Dalrymple's The Last Moghul --

Book review:

William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal – The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857.
Alfred K. Knopf, New York, 2007.
ISBN 978-1-4000-4310-1

When the British annexed India in 1857 and Burma in 1886, they sent the Burmese King Thibaw and his family to Ratnagiri near Madras in India, and the Indian Emperor to Rangoon in Burma.
I lived in Rangoon almost 40 years before I came to the United States, but until 1988 I had never heard of Zafar Shah, the last Indian Emperor. In 1988, when my childhood friend, Yasmin and I were having high tea at the Hotel Atop the Bellevue in Philadelphia, Yasmin, who is Burmese-Muslim and can trace her origins to her grand aunts in Mandalay, the last capital city of the Burmese kings, happened to mention a Zafar Shah Road in Rangoon. Lost in a fugue state in one of the worst exile periods of my life, I asked Yasmin, “Who was he?” She then told me in one sentence about the British colonial power’s cunning prisoner exchange.
I had heard about the Sepoy Rebellion and the Indian Mutiny, in relation to the economic history of Burma and its annual budget, when it was a part of the Indian colonial empire until 1937. But I realize now, this 1857 event was a rebellion or a mutiny only if seen from the point of view of the British administration. From the Indian point of view, it is a national uprising and an attempt to regain native control of the Indian territories, which were being successively taken over by the East India Company.
I had read William Dalrymple’s other best-selling book, The White Mughals, 2002, a few years ago. This book was given to me by another childhood friend, this one the daughter of my father’s closest British, actually Scottish, friend. I loved The White Mughals, which was about the star-crossed marriage of a Mughal princess, Khair un-Nissa and the “gone native” British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. So it was easy for me to find The Last Mughal on the shelves at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.
The author photo on the back book jacket flap of The Last Mughal shows William Dalrymple sitting on what must be an Indian veranda, holding his right hand to his forehead as if to keep all the historical facts he has researched together in his head. This book is indeed a tour de force of primary research and gripping historical narrative. It holds the reader’s rapt attention until the very last page – leaving you still yearning to learn more about Zafar’s family and his descendents.
To write this book, Dalrymple and his colleague Mahmood Farooqui translated the Mutiny Papers from the Urdu in the Indian National Archives, and there were also primary sources in Persian. In Rangoon, then UK Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, he says, helped him “get into the Rangoon Archives.” Again, until I read this book I had no idea the Zafar Shah papers still existed in Rangoon, though I come from a well known bookish Rangoon family myself.
Because of this wealth of new primary material, Dalrymple’s book presents an amazing “I was there, and this is how it was” view of Indians from various walks of life before, during and after this earth-shaking uprising of 1857. At the same time as we obtain the views of the ruling British Resident family, the Metcalfes, we also get the views of members of Zafar’s family and court.
One of the most lucid and effective contemporary commentators was the court poet Ghalib, who was, by a fluke of luck, one of the only survivors of the mass killings and rapes that accompanied the re-taking of Dehli from the rebels. At the same time, Dalrymple has marshaled his facts so well, telling us only what we need to know at the right moment and no earlier, that the narrative reads like an historical novel.
As in the best fiction, the main characters change over time. Gradually, Zafar loses hope. He was after all in his mid-eighties. But he always conducted himself with dignity and humanity and quite a degree of political astuteness even in the face of overwhelming odds, in contrast to the outright brutality of the British officers and soldiers.
On the other hand, driven by thoughts of revenge, Theo Metcalfe, the scion of the Metcalfe family, metamorphoses into a frightening monster with his own gallows in his own back garden. In The Last Mughul, the facts themselves read somewhat like the quotes in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and I mean this of course as the highest of compliments.
The Last Mughal is also just plain well-written. Some of the most affecting and lyrical chapters are the ones depicting what a day in the life of the capital city was like before the troubles. Contrasted with the carnage after, The Last Mughal is a must read as an accurate depiction of what happens when wars of colonization take place.
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Kyi May Kaung holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Economy and is an expert on totalitarian systems and Burma.