Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Last Mughal. By William Dalrymple

The Last Mughal - The fall of a dynasty. Delhi. 1857

William Dalrymple

Published in 2006 by Penguin Books.

A detailed description of about six months in Delhi centred on the 'Uprising' (or 'First Indian War of Independence' or 'the Sepoy Mutiny') of May 11 1857. There is an extensive list of references, showing the enormous amount of research that Dalrymple has put in. In particular, he makes references to the 'mutiny papers' apparently a large amount of material in the National Archives in New Delhi, which, however, had not so far been made familiar to the public because much of it was written in a difficult-to-read Urdu script. Anyway Dalrymple spins a well written, extremely readable story, sympathetic in the main to India and Indians, and in particular to Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal of the title. Dalrymple makes several points, not all of them immediately acceptable - but that could because his writing style is so gripping, the book reads like a novel, rather a sad novel, though. The points he makes are as follows: The uprising, which is what he calls the event throughout, was not a well-thought out or planned political rebellion against the British, but more in nature of a temporary, immediate, religious battle against Christianity, chiefly by Muslims, though the Hindus did join in initially. Zafar was coopted as the head of the rebellion, not because of any of his qualities, or because of anything he did, or said, but simply because there was no other focal point. Zafar himself would have been content to recite poetry and lead the life of a dilletante, rather than lead a rebellion, but was forced to do the latter. The uprising failed because there was no leadership, no organisation, and because the people of Delhi themselves, more or less, were unhappy with the rebels, and wanted them to go. These feelings, however, did not save them from the wrath of the British, who after they put down the rebellion, put down (hanged actually) all the rebels, and then shot or hanged all the people of Delhi, even the women and children. Two or three Britishers come to the special attention of Dalrymple for their extreme cruelty, but also for their clear strategic thinking and firmness of purpose - Nicholson, Hodson and Theo Metcalfe. But he does not balance that out with cruel Indians, though there must have been a few - perhaps he did not have specific names.

As I have said, the book is an excellent read. But it is not a complete history of the events of 1857. It concentrates on the events in Delhi and ignores what happened elsewhere. A less sympathetic view of Zafar's role could have described him as a cowardly old fool, who unfortunately happened to be still alive at that time. If the throne had been occupied by someone younger, with more energy, perhaps the British could have been driven out, or at least made to stay on only in a kind of uneasy co-existence with the 'natives'. The point then comes to one's mind - were the British seen by the 'ordinary' people of India as any more 'foreign' than the Turks, or the Afghans, or the Mughals (Timurids) or the hundreds of other conquering races before them. One gets the sense that the real reason the rebellion failed, was because the common 'teeming millions' did not really care whether Rama ruled or Ravana. [A disclaimer: By this, of course, I do not subscribe to the view, that the only 'truly native' Indians were the Hindus of the Gupta period- about 300 - 500 AD].

The final chapter of the book describes a sad, old Zafar in exile in Rangoon (Yangon, now), maintained by the British in near destitution. I remember visiting his 'Mazar' there in 2005, and standing by respectfully while my fellow professor from Delhi recited some Urdu couplets, apparently written by Zafar himself. The tomb was a sorry place, but that may have been because most of Yangon was anyway in a sorry state. This last chapter also mirrors the exile of the Burmese King in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, as described (but more pompously, and with less detail and authenticity than this book) by Amitav Ghosh in 'The Glass Palace'.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Frozen assets. By P.G. Wodehouse

Frozen assets

P.G. Wodehouse

First published in 1964. This edition published by Pan Books in 1969.

The 4th or 5th time I am reading this book. Not one of Wodehouse's best, and doesn't feature any of the regulars (Jeeves, Galahad, Mulliner...). It is one of his romantic comedies, and if made into a movie today, would be categorized as a 'chick flick'. It is memorable for the first scene in the French police station where Jerry Shoesmith learns that 'he is up against French red tape, compared to which that of Britain or US is only a pale pink'.

The Catcher in The Rye. By J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in The Rye

J.D. Salinger

First published 1951. This edition published in 1991

A well known work of American fiction but I had never gotten around to reading it, till now. (Chitra brought it when she came in July, and left it back for me to read, though she had not finished it). Salinger tells about a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, a 17 or 18 year old boy in New York, who is expelled from his pricey private school for bad grades. He doesn't go home straight away, but spends a few days in a hotel (and a couple of bars) in the city, before he finally does go home. The book reminded me of some of the extentialist novels, like the one by Wim Wenders (The anxiety of the goalie before the penalty shot) or the one by Kazuo Ishiguro, except the sense of the anxiety in the later two books is palpable, while this one is somewhat lighter. The title refers to a dream Holden has about some kids, whom he likes, playing in a field of rye at the edge of a cliff. Holden is responsible for them, and sees himself as a catcher, standing in the field to head off the kids from falling over the cliff. Holden is a cynical boy, who sees almost nothing good in anyone, except kids, and finally it his kid sister who prevents him from staying away from home altogether. Salinger's writing is designed to imitate the speech patterns of his protagonaist, and thus gets repetitive and boring, with 'it kills me' and 'crazy' appearing at least three times on each page. All the same a nice book, well worth one read but maybe not another.