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Conflicts of religion and power bring down India's last emperor.
By VIKRAM JOHRI
Published April 15, 2007
William Dalrymple, then a young man of 18, arrived in Delhi for the first time in 1984. Since then, the writer-historian has had a near obsessive fascination with India's capital.
The Last Mughal is the third book he has devoted to Delhi. City of Djinns is a paean to the capital; White Mughals recounts the history of the British who embraced Mughal culture when they first arrived in the country.
By the 1850s, this intermingling had given way to a hierarchical power structure that laid the foundation of the British empire in India. The Last Mughal delves into this latter part of the British presence, the uprising of 1857 and the downfall of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II.
Dalrymple eschews the analytical form for rich narrative. He describes the lives of tiny players in the uprising; from fruit sellers to courtesans, the story of the last days of the Mughal empire comes alive. Dalrymple reportedly gleaned more than 20,000 Mutiny papers at the National Archives in Delhi in his meticulous research for the book.
He focuses on the religious nature of the uprising; though the military Sepoy mutiny is given prominent mention, Dalrymple is careful to maintain that the incidents that led to the uprising were clearly aimed at getting rid of "the other" - in this case, the Christian rulers.
From the massacre of innocent Christians to the heavy-handed British reprisal, Dalrymple's tale evokes how history is often not the grand sweeping narrative it is portrayed to be, but the messy outcome of circumstance, destiny and individual action, or lack thereof.
For the Delhi elite, the disappearance of a way of life defined by its syncretic character and love of the arts was the primal jolt. The book ultimately is a lament for this loss of a rich culture that imbibed the best of Hinduism and Islam. Thanks to Dalrymple, we can now get a peek into the last moments of a beguiling era.