From the moment one starts reading about a shrouded corpse being escorted by a group of British soldiers to an unmarked grave in a prison enclosure in Rangoon in 1862, to the last page of the magisterial and compulsively readable The Last Mughal, it is difficult to keep track of time.
If there is such a thing as a page-turner of a history book, The Last Mughal
would be one.
The author, William Dalrymple, award-winning travel writer and historian, offers in over 500 pages more than just the poignant story of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal emperor.
Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Sufi, a mystical poet, calligrapher and lover of gardens, was an emperor just in name by the 1850s. He was 'a chessboard king,' Dalrymple says. The East India Company and Christian missionaries from England were itching to wrest even the nominal control from his hands.
Dalrymple creates vivid scenes of dissatisfaction with the British in Delhi and elsewhere in the neighbouring regions, and writes of how the weak, 76-year-old ruler was horrified by the uprising but gave it his blessing, 'seeing it as the only way to save his great dynasty from extinction.' The writer notes that 'it was a decision he later came to regret bitterly.'
The Last Mughal is also the story of an English trading company turning into an imperial machine. It is a tale of religious corruption and bigotry, and a horrifying account of the attempts to redeem honor, prestige and power through violence -- and how the process that began in 1857 took the long-winded but steady road to 9/11.
It has been critically acclaimed. It has also won praise from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and novelist Salman Rushdie, who is writing a novel set in the Mughal era.
Dalyrmple discusses the novel, the perspective he gained of the events of 1857 in India before he wrote his book and the role of Bahadur Shah Zafar, with Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais.
The first of a week-long series commemorating 150 Years since the First War of Independence.
Image: The Hanging of Two Rebels, by Felice Beato, 1858. Albumen silver print.
Also see: Marching on history's path to Red Fort