Emperor Zafar: The Last Mughal
Just a day before the onset of the terrible violence in Mumbai
, I finished The Last Mughal
by William Dalrymple. This beautifully written, magnificently researched, and wonderfully descriptive book explores the reign of Zafar, the last of the Timurid Mughal emperors, whose dynasty ended in devastation and defeat as a result of the Indian Mutiny of 1857
. The Mughal Empire, to be sure, had by the mid-nineteenth century been reduced to the city of Delhi and its immediate environs (whose life, citizens, culture, and economy are brilliantly evoked by Dalrymple). As the author shows vividly and with great empathy, Zafar's court nonetheless represented the supreme flowering of Indo-Muslim civilization, a model syncresis that was irreparably destroyed in a few months.
You know how you sometimes associate a place with a piece of knowledge, even though you're aware that the two are probably unrelated? Well, I seem to associate first hearing about the Indian Mutiny with the basement of the main school building of my preparatory school, an area of which doubled as our "tuck"
shop, and a few classrooms, and where once a week we were allowed to buy candy
. I remember the feeling of the damp basement, with its rationed pleasures, and somehow I associate that with first learning about the Black Hole of Calcutta
and what misery the British suffered in putting down the rebellion of Indian sepoys
, who ignorantly thought their bullets were greased with fat from cows (an insult to Hindus) or pigs (an insult to Muslims). I couldn't have been more than ten years old, and yet I knew who was right and who was wrong.
Although that was over thirty years ago, reading The Last Mughal
reminded me how tenacious are those first lessons that lay out your nation's history and demand that you forget the horror, the horror. Why were we given no sense of the Indians' experience? Why was our imperial venture deemed so natural and beneficial? Why had it seemed appropriate to ignore the research lying in plain sight in Indian archives (as Dalrymple discovered) and only concentrate on the memoirs, letters, and other material written in English by the English survivors and historians? Why had it been so easy to buy into the belief that English civilization was better and more advanced than the Mughal court, with its elaborate rituals, poetry, song, and music, or the city with its extraordinary architecture, goods from all over the world, and a culture that tolerated difference and valued its diversity? The Last Mughal
is the astringent that imperially and imperiously educated people like myself need to read more often. Although Dalrymple describes the violence that befell some of the British ex-pats in Delhi once the rebellion begun, he also demonstrates the blood-lust unleashed in the British forces when they descended on Delhi and retook it—the indiscriminate slaughter, the leveling of the city, and the wholesale vindictiveness against civilian and soldier that shocked and astonished even those who had no love for Indians.
Dalrymple offers further parallels with today convincingly but with great care. Much of the tension of the thirty to forty years leading up to the Mutiny—which, of course, is itself the victor's term for the rebellion—was caused by the emergence of fundamentalist religious fervor among Hindus, Muslims, and evangelical Christians. These set themselves against the tolerant and pluralistic culture of Delhi and other cities throughout the Mughal Empire. The result was a hardening of attitudes, less and less fraternization and understanding, and ultimately a push toward a bloody confrontation as God's will for each religion's civilization. The last two decades have seen another such Manichean struggle between fundamentalisms
, one of the outcomes of which took place in Mumbai over the last few days.
What I had not appreciated before was how much of the growth of the British Empire in Asia had been contracted out to the East India Company
, which had begun as a trading company in 1600 but by the mid-eighteenth century had its own army and more or less did the British government's dirty work for it. In other words, it was the nineteenth-century equivalent of Blackwater
, controlling the natives for its own profit and the greater glory of the country, and considering itself above the law in doing so.
Dalrymple makes sure that he doesn't romanticize the rebels. As soon as the sepoys and jihadis rebelled and fled to the banner of the Emperor in Delhi, there was looting, rape, and internecine battles among the different factions—all at the expense of the Emperor, who tried to keep both Hindus and Muslims happy, and whose embrace of the rebellion was at the most lukewarm and at the least fearful and hostile. He ended his life in exile in Rangoon, along with some members of his family, and Delhi was virtually razed by the British, apart from the Red Fort and some other places. The Mutiny did bring an end to the East India Company, which was dissolved in favor of Victoria, Queen of India, and by the 1880s there emerged a resistance movement that rallied around the flag of democracy and human rights rather than an emperor. Nine decades later, this movement forced the British out of India for good. Even independence, however, couldn't remove the mistrust between Hindu and Muslim that was the legacy of the destruction of Mughal India, and the partition of India and Pakistan has led to three wars and numerous acts of terrorism—including that in Mumbai.
My father served in the (British) Indian Army during the Second World War, and found himself on the border between the two emerging countries in 1947. All he would tell me was that he tried to avoid being killed by either Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs (who in 1947—as ninety years earlier—were a third force whose allegiance could not be guaranteed by anyone). My father was a physical education instructor during the war, and he told me with pride that he made sure that every religion and diet was respected. I once asked my father if he'd ever killed a man. He told me he'd fired a gun, but he didn't go further than that. Some things, I suppose, you don't want to talk about. Some things, you don't want to learn.