I was eighteen when I first read William Dalrymple’s White Mughals.
Since then, I have read it many times over, and it would not be wrong to say that I am obsessed with it, perhaps unhealthily so.
As Dalrymple himself writes,
“The hybrid world of the White Mughals is certainly unfamiliar to anyone who accepts at face value the usual rigid caricature of the Englishman in India, presented over and over again in films and television dramas, of the imperialist incarnate: the narrow-minded sahib in a sola topee, dressing for dinner in the jungle while raising a disdainful nose at both the people and the culture of India.”
White Mughals turns everything we Indians thought about colonial Brits on its head. The early East India Company officials were not like the later powerful Victorian Sahibs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, India was one of the wealthiest and most powerful lands in the world. The British arrivals in India were a ragged bunch coming to seek money, and as described as Dalrymple, like modern citizens of developing countries migrating to the US: “scruffy provincial underdogs trying to get a bit of the commercial action”.
I grew up with Indian books, movies & TV series that depicted the early East India Company officials as sneaky, cunning little devils, who came to India under the guise of trade, but their real intention all along was to usurp power from Indians and (evil laugh) take over the world!
Imagine my astonishment when I learned how the East India Company was established! Pankaj Mishra states it brilliantly in this review of White Mughals in the Guardian:
“In 1616, when Sir Thomas Roe arrived in Agra, India, as the first accredited English ambassador to the Mughal Empire, he probably did not expect the small humiliations he would face over the next three years.
His ruler in England, King James I, who wanted a formal trade treaty with the Mughal emperor Jahangir, had told him to be “careful of the preservation of our honour and dignity”. But Roe struggled to keep the English flag aloft at the brilliantly adorned Mughal court, where even his only European rival, the Portuguese ambassador, seemed grander than he.
He managed to avoid the bowing and scraping expected of ambassadors, but he felt acutely the shabbiness of the gifts he had brought from England for the aesthete Jahangir, and he could not entirely overcome Jahangir’s scepticism about a supposedly great English king who concerned himself with such petty things as trade.
Perhaps Roe shouldn’t have worried so much. In retrospect, it is Jahangir who seems a victim of imperial hubris while Roe emerges as a far-sighted diplomat of an emerging economic and military power. Roe failed to get a formal treaty out of Jahangir. But he did secure a toehold for the East India Company on the western coast of India. Over the next 150 years, traders from Britain turned into soldiers and steadily overcame their Portuguese, French and Dutch rivals, even as the Mughal Empire, weakened by endless wars and invasions, slowly imploded into independent states.
Loss of territory and influence diminished Mughal emperors in Delhi into pathetic figureheads as early as the mid-18th century. The British gave them generous pensions and allowed them to hold shows of pomp and ceremony periodically – despite their infirmity, they retained, in British eyes, the symbolic value of belonging to India’s oldest and most prestigious ruling dynasty.
Neither Jahangir nor Roe could have foreseen the formal end of the Mughal empire, which finally came during the suppression of the Mutiny in 1858, long after the British conquest of India was complete, when an English soldier executed the sons of the rebellious, and – as it turned out – last Mughal emperor, and left their corpses to rot in the streets of Delhi.”
History textbooks and TV series . taught me that Tipu Sultan and the Marathas, India’s last great defenders against the British, fought valiantly against the foreign invaders until their tragic defeat.
But while reading White Mughals, I almost fell out of my chair when I learned that both Tipu Sultan and the Marathas were allied with the French! It turns out the battle for eighteenth-century India wasn’t just Indians against Europeans: it was also Europeans against Europeans.
“It sounds incredible that when the Nizam fought the forces of Nana Phadnavis, ranged against each other were not just the flags of orthodox Hindus and unorthodox Muslims but those of warring French parties, Bourbon and Revolutionary.”
As Sapientia Semita writes rather forcefully in his blog post on White Mughals, if Tipu Sultan had won, India would have become a French colony instead of a British one:
“Tipu Sultan is considered to be a champion of Indian freedom since he fought against the British. Our politically inclined historians, however, have lost sight of Tipu’s real intentions in fighting against the British. He had only one aim in doing so, and that was the continuation of his reign and nothing else. He openly sought help from the French who helped him in increasing his military power and providing him with a mercenary force. How can such a person be the fountainhead of India’s freedom struggle? Dalrymple quotes a letter from Napoleon Bonaparte to Tipu, which was sent from Cairo, annexed by Napoleon. It runs thus, “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible army, full of the desire of releasing and relieving you from the iron yoke of England. I eagerly embrace this opportunity of testifying to you the desire I have of being informed by you, by way of Muscat and Mocha, as to your political situation. I could even wish you could send some sort of intelligent person to Suez or Cairo, possessing your confidence, with whom I may confer. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies!” It is curious to hear Bonaparte talking about the iron yoke of England because if he and Tipu had their ways, India would have been under the iron yoke of France! Some freedom fighter!”
It all struck me as eerily similar to the Cold War, in which countries sided with either USA or Russia, who proceeded to use them as pawns in their own game; playing one against the other. It also resonates with today’s conflicts in the Middle East, where the USA got involved in what were initially local disputes.
On moving to the USA or UK, many Indians gave up their old Indian customs and adopted a completely Western way of life. Indians back home made fun of them and accused them of feeling ashamed of their Indian identity. And it hurt, too. To their families in India, it felt like a betrayal. It was as if their children were stating the unquestionable superiority of the West over India. That Indian culture wasn’t worth keeping.
Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that 300 years ago, Westerners coming to India did the same thing: shedding their Western ways and adopting Indian ways of dressing, eating, living and talking. To fit in, many of them even changed their names and religions. White Mughals illustrates that who apes who depends on who holds the most power & money at the time. Currently, it’s the USA. Should China become the number one world power tomorrow, we might all start speaking, and dressing and acting like the Chinese.
To the smarting Indian ego, long accustomed to feeling inferior and insecure, this feels good. It assures us that every dog has its day, as we once did. That once upon a time, Indians were masters and Westerners were servants. I know it sounds childish, vindictive and silly, and only shows what a severe inferiority complex we still have. But to the Indian ego wounded by decades of poverty, it gives us some small comfort. It makes our daily small humiliations and tribulations a little easier to bear. It helps us to dream that one day, we can overcome our problems and our poverty, and regain the prosperity and splendour that we once enjoyed.
After constantly hearing Westerners call us smelly and dirty, we Indians find the following passage from White Mughals especially gratifying:
“At a time when the British showed no particular enthusiasm for cleanliness, Indian women, for example, introduced British men to the delights of regular bathing. The fact that the word shampoo is derived from the Hindi word for massage (champi), and that it entered the English language at this time, shows the novelty to the eighteenth century British of the Indian idea of cleaning hair with materials other than soap. In fact, shampoo was first introduced in Britain by an entrepreneur from Patna named Dean Mahomet, who was later appointed ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ to Kings George IV and William IV. Those Britons who returned home and continued to bathe and shampoo themselves on a regular basis found themselves scoffed at by their less hygienic compatriots: indeed it was a cliché of the time that the British in Bengal had become ‘effeminate’.”
The part that fascinates me the most, and is most relevant to this day and age, is Dalrymple’s analysis of that social phenomenon. What changed? How come the British and Indians who embraced each other whole-heartedly in the eighteenth century, were driven apart in the nineteenth? Dalrymple writes that in the eighteenth century, there was a balance of power between the Indians and British. This equality enabled them to intermarry and exchange cultures and ideas freely. Later, when the British became all-powerful, they considered it beneath themselves to marry Indians, or even to treat them as equals.
Intriguingly, many Anglo-Indian children of these unions covered up their Indian origins to escape prejudice and assimilate into British society (a trend that, painfully enough, continues to this very day.
Anglo-Indian children fair (and “fortunate”) enough to “pass” for British were shipped off to England to be educated, while the dark-skinned ones remained in India and lost out on the opportunities available to their fairer skinned siblings. Is this the reason behind India’s obsession with fair skin, and its massive consumption of fairness creams and skin bleaching products? After all, in colonial India, the fairer your skin, the greater were your advantages. Sadly, the Indian psyche is still scarred by the racism of the nineteenth century.
My generation witnessed the rise of multiculturalism in the West: the transformation of a racist and religiously intolerant culture into a free, egalitarian and progressive utopia. Kids like me view the West as a liberal paradise, in which all human beings are treated as equals. And we take it for granted that things will stay that way.
But White Mughals shows that just as an intolerant society can progress to a multi-cultural one, so can a multi-cultural society regress to a rigid and intolerant one. It isn’t just a history book on the past; it is a warning for the future. A warning that – in the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror, and the rise of demagogues and right wing extremism the world over – we cannot possibly afford to ignore. In horror, I watch the steady increase of intolerance in today’s society. With religious fundamentalism on the rise and Islamophobia growing in the West, White Mughals has become more relevant than ever.