AT FIRST SIGHT, this book seems to explore territory made familiar by such
modern classics as E. M. Forsterâ€™s A Passage to India and Paul Scottâ€™s
The Raj Quartet (filmed by Granada as The Jewel in the Crown
). In practice, the story is set 200 years ago, and features historical
Its â€œvillainsâ€ will nevertheless be familiar to readers of those
20th-century novels. They are the uptight, pompous British administrators who
(from the beginning of the 19th century) saw India not as an exotic,
sophisticated playground, but as a heathen desert that had to be tamed,
converted, and rendered thoroughly British.
In this setting, and in the tradition of E. M. Forster, the bookâ€™s hero and
heroine are sensuous, spontaneous, and deeply in love. But he is a servant of
the Raj, and she is a Mughal princess.
The Islamic Mughal Empire was founded by Babur, who had become ruler of
Turkestan when he was 12. In 1525, he invaded India and conquered large areas
of the country. When his grandson Akbar became emperor, he doubled the size of
the territory, so that the Mughal Empire stretched across almost all of what is
now India and Pakistan.
The Empire was attacked by the Persians in 1739, and later the British
conquered the country â€” overcoming French rivalry on the way. Even so, it was
not until 1857, for example (long after the period covered by
White Mughals), that the northern city of Delhi was captured by the
During the transitional 18th century, the world of the Mughals was unlike
our modern image of an Islamic state. It celebrated the arts and science â€” and
It was open-minded to the extent that many upper-class Mughal families hoped
to marry at least one daughter to a British Resident; that is, to one of the
young British men in the growing colonial service who acted as ambassadors to
the Indian courts.
These men, like James Kirkpatrick, who is at the centre of this story, were
often sons of colonial families; they had been brought up in India, and spoke
the local languages. Isolated by their jobs, they made their friends among the
better-off Muslim and Hindu families.
Like many of his contemporaries, James Kirkpatrick adapted to the ways of
Hyderabad, the city to which he was posted: he became one of the â€œwhite
Mughalsâ€. Although he wore British clothes during the day, he changed into
Muslim dress in the evenings, smoked his hookah, and â€œtook to belching after
His acceptance by and knowledge of the Muslim world won approval from his
employers, the East India Company. But when he glimpsed, fell in love with,
and, early in 1801, married a young Mughal princess, Khair un-Nissa, he
converted to Islam and had himself circumcised.
Much earlier, the Inquisition had concerned itself with Portuguese settlers
in India who had adopted Indian ways. Those who â€œcooked rice without salt as
Hindus doâ€ were denounced as heretics. Even more â€œsinfulâ€ was a refusal to eat
But, as the 18th century progressed, there developed a considerable degree
of tolerance, even licence. A typical eveningâ€™s entertainment in Hyderabad
might include exotic Indian dancing girls and â€œthe reading of Dryden out loudâ€.
Then, around 1800, unfortunately for Kirkpatrick, attitudes began to change.
The British were no longer merely east-coast traders: the East India Company
was on its way to becoming a colonial power.
At the same time, the sexual licence of 18th-century London was giving way
to the first stirrings of 19th- century, later to be Victorian, morality.
Evangelical missionaries with little sympathy for Hinduism or Islam (they were
often unable to tell them apart) began to arrive in India.
It is in this context that this extraordinary, moving, and ill-fated love
story is set. But, despite the cover of the paperback edition, it is not a
novel, nor is it a biography.
The reader needs to be aware that we do not really meet the Mughal princess
until we have read 150 pages. This is a serious history of a little-known (but
fascinating) world, and Dalrymple is a serious historian who has undertaken a
mammoth amount of research.
The unkind critic will say that the book comes close to sinking under that
research, all of which the author seems determined to share with us. One day,
an enterprising dramatist will fillet out a populist screen epic from its
Meanwhile, it well repays careful reading. The story of James Kirkpatrick
and Khair un-Nissa (a variant on the theme of Romeo and Juliet) is captivating,
but it also speaks to our times, reminding us that East and West, Islam and
Christianity, need not be mutually irreconcilable.
As the author says: â€œOnly bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them
apart.â€ They intermingled happily in the time of the White Mughals, and,
Dalrymple trusts, â€œwill do so againâ€.
David Selfâ€™s book 21st Century Islam will be published this summer
by Hodder Wayland.
White Mughals by William Dalrymple is published by Perennial/
HarperCollins at Â£8.99
WHITE MUGHALS â€” SOME QUESTIONS
Why does the author find the White Mughals so fascinating?
What are the similarities and differences between the Islam of India and
that of Iran
as depicted in the book? How do they connect with our perceptions of that
What was the place of women in Indian life at the time of James Kirkpatrick?
â€œIndia was no longer a place to be transformed by; instead it was a place to
conquer and transformâ€ (page 454). How is this shift represented in the book?
How would you describe James Kirkpatrick? Do you warm to him as an
What were the joys and difficulties of a mixed marriage in James
Kirkpatrickâ€™s India? Are there similar issues for mixed marriages today?
What factors persuaded parents to send their European children â€œhomeâ€? What
challenges faced those who continued to live in India?
â€œI hope that if Iâ€™ve done my work properly it should be quite clear that
this has a contemporary relevance,â€ William Dalrymple said in an interview
about the book. What do you think he has in mind?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 June, we will print extra information
about the next book. This is The Book of Creation by Philip
Newell. It is published by Canterbury Press at Â£7.99 (
The Revd J. Philip Newell is a Church of Scotland minister. He was born in
Canada, but now lives in Scotland, where he is Writer Theologian of the
Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae. He spends much of his time lecturing and
leading retreats on Celtic spirituality. He has previously been employed as
Warden of Iona Abbey and spirituality adviser in the Anglican diocese of
Portsmouth. He has written a number of books, including
Listening for the Heartbeat of God (SPCK, 1997), Celtic Benediction,
and Echo of the Soul (both Canterbury Press, 2000).
The Celtic tradition sees in creation a self-giving of God. Philip Newell
takes the reader on a journey through the seven days of creation, looking at
them through the lens of Celtic spirituality, with its roots in the Old
Testament wisdom tradition and the mysticism of St Johnâ€™s Gospel. Each chapter
explores one aspect of creation and how it is a manifestation of God.
Books for the next two months:
July: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
August: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa