30 June 2011

On Reading The Last Mughal

To Prashansa Taneja,
hoping this proves explanation enough.


The Last Mughal is without a doubt one of the most horrible books I’ve read in a long time now.

Oh no, don’t get me wrong please. I don’t mean horrible in that sense, that it’s a badly written or badly research book or that it strikes at our moral or ethical fibre, assuming momentarily that I believed in such a thing. No, I don’t mean horrible in that sense, for far from that The Last Mughal is an engaging, thought-provoking work that fills the supposed divide betwixt creative writing – or fiction as it’s generally considered – and academic discourse, showing, as Khushwant Singh observed in a review, “the way history should be written”. In reimagining the events that led to the fall of Delhi in 1857 and evidencing experience from both sides of the divide and from the respective factions within these, Dalrymple adopts a remarkably nuanced and humane approach that is neutral and biased at the same time, thus appealing at once to both the emotional and intellectual faculties of the reader. No, The Last Mughal is a very well written and intensively researched book, a must-read, as they say, for all those with even an iota of interest in history and India’s colonial past.

Still, it makes one shudder: without a doubt, one of the most horrible books. It is, admittedly, not a bad read in this sense, this sense I’ve discussed above, but it’s certainly more than just bad when it comes to the ideas and associations it brings to mind by virtue of being good, being well written and well researched. That, I suppose, is the catch with good books as it were: they’re good, yes, but usually they leave you nowhere close.

Which is precisely the case with The Last Mughal. It is well written, but it cannot but make you wonder at the cupidity of the human race. Reading that book, one cannot but be grieved at the many mistakes our kind has made throughout its recorded history, the misunderstandings and prejudices that have time and again pitied one community against another. Of course, human history is naught but a chronicle of human avarice and insensitivity and so no account of any period or any battle cannot but give rise to such gloomy speculations on the nature of humanity, but to read such accounts of one’s own history, of events which directly made one’s present environment what it is is manifestly different from reading of just another chip off the historical block: one can feel a connect otherwise, but it’s hard not to be affected when the connect is to one’s own.

The Last Mughal worked just so for me. A great burden of history weighs Delhi and none can live in it without being aware, however dimly, of the past, a past that is at once dead and living, a past that informs our thoughts and actions even as it stands apart, aloof as a vestige of unknown days and years. To those who think about this much, who engage with the ways in which the present flows into the past and interacts with the needs of the future, it is difficult, or so I believe, to be unaffected by works that draw attention to those awesome events which cataclysmically changed the course of time.

Reading Dalrymple’s lucid prose on the events of 1857 does as much. Delhi is a city, a culture of gaps; the course of a violent history has scarred it time and again in as many ways as can be imagined. It has risen, yes, but like most such coming to terms with disaster stories, that seems more owing to the will of conquering armies than any never-say-die spirit of the butchered mass of generations. In that context, in being a year of general rout and massacre, 1857 is no different from, say, 1398 or 1739, but in marking a sudden and extremely regressive end to a flourishing cultural ethos 1857 is, perhaps, distinct from all earlier and subsequent disasters. It may be because it’s comparatively recent and we still feel and see its consequences in the nature and structure of the city or it may be a totally personal bias, but to me nothing destroyed Delhi and all it stood for as 1857 did. The sense of loss, that peculiar sense of being rooted in an ethos without roots and of being without a coherent past in spite of all the imposing spectacles of history that causally and daily regale the eye, this particular sense which informs a Dilliwaalah’s engagement with his physical environment and time and again makes him aware of something missing in his being, something valuable and precious the lack of which makes his identity at once tenuously solid, solidly tenuous, this sense is, I believe, directly the consequence of what happened in 1857, of what the British did to the city in their mad and manifestly misguided lust for vengeance and power.

It is, of course, not wholly correct to blame the British: the blame of what happened should be assigned in varying measures to all parties, not just the British whose brutal reprisal has left certain parts of the city without as much as an inch of ground untainted with blood. But why blame anyone at all? To read is to understand, to understand is to contextualise, weigh the complex mass of actions and motives against reasons and causes and unearth thus the forces which materialised as processes. It may or may not be to forgive; it is certainly not to forget, but to understand is perhaps to not hold a grudge, to not forgive, no, but to move beyond blames and learn and not repeat.

Which is something humanity has seldom, if ever, done. Works like The Last Mughal strike you not as much as for displaying the cupidity of man then as much as man all along, man throughout his recorded history, a history that is nothing but a rutted, bloody chronicle of opportunities missed and lessons unlearnt. That we, we who live in this supposed age of technology and information, this age of learning and knowledge, that we should know so much and still fail in our endeavours to understand each other, to accept difference as natural and healthy and turn bias interactive and productive is a vindication of the deep seated unwillingness of humanity to take stock of itself, a blindness that prevents it from seeing what it was, what it is and what it is moving to become. Works like Dalrymple’s remind one of that, of not just the intense pain man extracted from man and of the blood and gore on which our greatest civilisational endeavours are built and ultimately reduced to but also the grief which we continue to inflict on each other in failing to understand the roots of our existing biases, problems, and tackling them thus, not superficially, from above, but as a whole with patience and tact. It is our continual failure to do so, to exorcise the ghosts of our past and to not attempt reconciliation that contributes steadily to the tragedy called man. The Last Mughal reminds one of that, of the ruin and end an entire civilisation came to, of the lives unnecessarily lost to prejudice and greed. It’s a tale we should all remember, but to remember it in itself, to understand and come to terms and still not forget, that is the challenge, that is what it demands of a reader: to live, even if for a while, the fall of a city, the death of thousands, the heart of a people...

...and that, precisely, is why I say it’s horrible.

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