White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-century India
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'White Mughals' is the romantic and ultimately tragic tale of a passionate love affair that transcended all the cultural, religious and political boundaries of its time. James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad when he met Khair un-Nissa - 'Most Excellent among Women' - the great-niece of the Prime Minister of Hyderabad. He fell in love with her and overcame many obstacles to marry her, converting to Islam and, according to Indian sources, becoming a double-agent working against the East India Company.
It is a remarkable story, but such things were not unknown: from the early sixteenth century to the eve of the Indian Mutiny, the 'white Mughals' who wore local dress and adopted Indian ways were a source of embarrassment to successive colonial administrations. Dalrymple unearths such colourful figures as 'Hindoo Stuart', who travelled with his own team of Brahmins to maintain his temple of idols, and Sir David Auchterlony, who took all 13 of his Indian wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of her own elephant. In 'White Mughals', William Dalrymple discovers a world almost entirely unexplored by history, and places at its centre a compelling tale of seduction and betrayal.
In quitting a similar rather more lucrative situation than that which I at present hold and sacrificing his interest to the rigidity of his principles, he gave up a certainty of a handsome independency [i. e. sufficient capital to allow him to retire to England on the interest] in the course of four or five years … In a single and unencumbered state I certainly should not have acted in the same manner. Perhaps I should have been wrong in not doing so, but I think I could have preserved my virtue without sacrificing my interest.
The relations of the Begum were naturally very furious and for a time the life of the lovers was in danger, but their passion for one another was not of a character as could be restrained by fear or disappointment. Every obstacle thrown in their way only seemed to make it stronger & stronger … 106 IV The ancient Persian town of Shushtar lies on the borders of modern-day Iran and Iraq, in the badlands to the far south-west of the country. Flanked on one side by the marshes leading down to the River Tigris and on the other by the dry and rocky Zagros mountains, Shushtar clings to the edge of a narrow plateau, just below the confluence of the Karun River with one of its tributaries.
The principal channel of my bribes in Nizam’s mahl [zenana] was Fihem Bhye, a woman of the most inordinate avarice … 33 The Subsidiary Treaty of 1800, dubbed ‘The Perpetual Alliance’, was finally signed on 12 October after nearly a year of negotiations. The Company agreed to increase the British forces in Hyderabad by an additional two thousand infantry and a thousand cavalry, in return for which the Nizam handed over to the British the Mysore provinces he had won after the fall of Seringapatam eighteen months earlier—provinces that were of course worth a huge multiple of the actual cost of maintaining a few thousand sepoys.
When none of these measures had any effect, they burned the steward’s house down. 125 Khair un-Nissa’s grandfather Bâqar Ali Khan had, meanwhile, become deeply unpopular with all his kinsmen, who regarded him as indirectly responsible for Mir Alam’s disgrace. As the story of James’s affair spread, Bâqar Ali was jeered ‘in the streets [and accused of ] having prostituted his grand daughter to the Resident’. At one point ‘abusive papers’ were stuck up around the Char Minar insulting him. 126 Sometime in June, Lieutenant Colonel James Dalrymple, now the most senior British soldier in Hyderabad, was out on a hunting expedition with Lieutenant Colonel Bowser a day’s journey from the city, when a message ‘was delivered by a servant of Bauker Aly, requesting us as his oldest and best friends to pay him a visit the next morning in order that he might consult with us on an affair of importance’.
The consequence of which is, as might well have been expected, that the lady was seized with a fever which according to Greene’s and Ure’s account absolutely endangered her life. It has now however left her, and though extremely weak, the khansaman has received directions to provide daily calves’ feet jelly’s until further orders. You may recollect from experience what a costly dish these calves’ feet jelly’s are at Hyderabad … ’ Later Kirkpatrick reported that during her illness, Mrs Ure complained of a lack of appetite but still managed to put away every day ‘poultry, rice, milk, butter, vegetables &c, &c, &c, &c’ as well as ‘two plum cakes, a goose, a turkey and ducks innumerable besides fowls and mutton’.