Unbounded love

I first met Willam Dalrymple while travelling in Turkey. He accompanied me in my carry-on baggage in the form of From the Holy Mountain, pressed on me at the last minute by a relative with an urgent ‘you must read this’. Read it I did over the course of four weeks, often longing to get back to our little apartment off Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim, or for my driving shift to end so I could gobble up more pages between one glorious ruin and another. Dalrymple overtook us on his journey from Greece to the Sahara in the footsteps of John Moschos, the 6th-century monk who visited his brothers in monasteries throughout the Byzantine world.

One of those awesomely informed writers who is adventurous enough to follow his passions, Dalrymple’s writing style is part Boy’s Own Annual, part doctoral thesis, inquiring yet undogmatic.

He traces his restless and excited questing partly to his education at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire. The Benedictine monks there were as given to hunting and beagling as they were to inculcating a passion for history and words in receptive charges like young William. They also introduced him to Robert Byron’s great travel classic The Road to Oxiana, which clearly provided the inspiration for his first book, In Xanadu, written during Cambridge term breaks.

Religion is an important theme in all Dalrymple’s books, from the early Christians to Hindusim, Islam and various sects with blurred theological borders from Greece to China. Extensive travels in the Islamic world and living in India have left this self-described wobbly Catholic open to all religious faiths, observing many other paths up the mountain. Now he speaks as a fervent advocate for Islam as lived by the vast majority of its adherents, reminding those who need to be reminded, of its similarities to Christianity. He condemns the bigotry and poor journalism that perpetuate a huge misrepresentation of Islam in the West as much as the damage caused from within by the Wahabi mullahs in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Afghanistan who have marginalised moderate Islam over the last 20 years.

In his earlier books, Dalrymple hangs his travels on history in the best In The Steps Of … tradition. He locates and visits the remarkable stopping points of much earlier travellers, sometimes at huge inconvenience. It is detective work in walking boots with his tattered original source in his rucksack, distracted from the main route by side trips into history and cultural commentary.

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India departs from the travel genre, though it was a trip to Hyderabad that inspired it. His nose for significant ruins led him to the late 18th-century Residency of the East India Company:

a once magnificent but now seriously decrepit villa built in the Palladian style by one Lieutenant Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick. Behind the villa were the remains of the women’s quarters where Kirkpatrick’s Muslim wife, Khair un-Nissa, lived in strict purdah. Further fossicking revealed a fragment of the plaster model of Kirkpatrick’s villa, built in Khair’s garden so she could admire the lovely palace she was unable to visit.

Dalrymple was touched by this evidence of an unusual love, and further stimulated by the fact that this part of India remains relatively unstudied, at least in English. He set off trawling through vast archives of documents and correspondence—in English and Urdu, on two continents—to discover more about this marriage and the context in which love between an English administrator and a Muslim teenager was not only tolerated but celebrated.

As the later British Raj emerged from under the wing of the East India Company it relegated the people of India to a lesser status, proscribing access to many institutions (including intermarriage) which would have given them any sort of equality.

[The] willingness of its predecessors, then, to embrace Indian life so naturally was a revelation. Dalrymple’s tale of pre-Raj India takes us into a period of tolerance, respect and mutual admiration, where British residents were frequently literate in several Indian languages, wore Indian dress, converted to Islam if it suited them, intermarried, and cherished and nurtured their Anglo Indian children.

It is hardly surprising that many East India Company men stayed on and lived as Indians in this colourful, ceremonial, perfumed, leisurely land when you consider what they would have returned to: grey, socially constrained, industrialising Britain.

This is a fascinating, though not always happy love story on which Dalrymple hangs a ‘painstakingly thorough commentary on the lives and times of two societies, their politics, occupations, intrigues, public and private lives’.

Given the current interest and prejudice circling around Islam, it is also very welcome. 

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India, William Dalrymple.
Harper Collins, 2002. isbn 0 006555 096, rrp $27.95

Anna Griffiths is a NSW art consultant.



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