Reviewed by -- Subhajyoti Ray, president
of the Internet and Mobile Association of India.
Short background about the author
"William Dalrymple understands India, Indian
history and his readers in
ascending order. That is what makes him a very
good writer and a reasonably sound historian writing
on South Asia. The fact that his writing is not
determined by academic exigencies such as the
pressures of a thesis, the load of a prejudice
or the hassles of artificial deadlines allows
him the supreme freedom of choosing a topic and
going all out to collect sources. And the fact
that he deliberately writes for a larger audience
than the incestuous circle of South Asian historians,
allows him to present history in a form that is
at once not intimidating to the layman and very
challenging to the more professional practitioner
of the craft.
"The Last Mughal"
It is a biography of the last Mughal Emperor (that
is the romantic side of Dalrymple) but it is firmly
rooted in the social, political and cultural changes
of the times (that
is the historian and the story teller in Dalrymple).
It is a voluminous book, but its essence both
as a literary and a history treatise can be captured
a few short paragraphs:
1. It fills up a major lacuna in the historiography
of India in the
sense that it supplements the works of Erick Stokes
Provinces, modern UP) and Rudrangshu Mukherjee
(Awadh) among others,
who have undertaken in depth regional studies
to bring to light the complexities
of the Uprising of 1857. Before "The Last
Mughal" Delhi was, rather, strangely, left
out of such in depth treatment.
2. For less strange reasons, Bahadur Shah Zafar
never enjoyed the
attention that his more illustrious forefathers
received from Indian historians. Although, in
many senses, he presided and lived through over
a complex socio-political transformation that
few of his predecessors except perhaps Babur did.
Dalrymple successfully puts the focus back on
this "black sheep" of the family.
3. Finally, and this is very important, Dalrymple
clearly shows how complicated simple social divisions
like class, caste, race, gender and loyalties
were before, during and immediately after the
4. In terms of substance, the book is rich is
use of sources, nuanced in its arguments and very
textured in the way that arguments and substantiation
are knitted together.
From a historian's perspective:
Another new regional study on the events of 1857
- filling up a major void; unearthing of new sources
- another big contribution to the historiography.
But nothing new in terms of argument. Believe
you me, we already knew the broader arguments
around race and religion. In fact, Dalrymple's
extra leap to connect the Jehadis of 1857 to
their current cousins seems like what it really
is - a giant and unnecessary leap.
From a reader's perspective: That
is the way to write history, each
character stands out on its own. And although
it will not be apparent
to an ordinary reader, a trained eye will not
miss the hard work that must
have gone to flesh out each character with such
meticulous detail. And Oh
boy! What a style of writing - captivating to
say the least. It does read like a
best selling thriller.
Lessons for the historian: "Isn't
that the way we should write our
history so that more and more people read and
understand what really happened and how?"