The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857
by William Dalrymple
578pp, Penguin India
In the May of the year 1857 when British introduced the New cartridges with the cow and pig fat, they did not know that this would not only establish their rule in India as a complete authority but also would end the rule of a dynasty which had hitherto ruled India for 330 years with all its magnificence which had astonished the people and the dynasties all over the globe. But what they also did not know was the bloody way which they had to cross to achieve India with them as complete sovereign and that they had to face the biggest mutiny India or the world had ever seen. Also, British east India Company had never faced such a rebellion that too by the sepoys who were trained by them, by then. Even after the mutiny of 1857, British never had to suppress such a mutiny and rebellion as it never happened anywhere else in any of the colonies of the British.
The last Mughal by William Dalrymple is another historical piece of writing covering this dark incident of Indian history and is great in every aspect. William Dalrymple in this book has very aptly narrated all the incidents that took place in the mutiny but the best part is that he has used the mutiny papers very well and it’s probably the first time when someone has brought them to the reach of the world so easily. Dalrymple has used papers from national archives from Delhi as well as from Burma which has made this masterpiece a perfect one.
On one May morning the sepoys from Meerut reached Delhi and after dire struggle entered the city of Delhi and thus the red fort. They asked Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their patron and wanted to fight under his patronage against the British to re-establish the Mughal rule of which they still believed they were the loyal subjects of. Bahadur Shah Zafar was a very noble and gentle man. He was more of a mystic than an emperor. If people say that he failed to stand against the British because he was weak then it’s totally wrong because on a wider perspective, we know that it’s not the perimeter to know how weak or strong of a man he was. When the sepoys reached him he was already 82 years old and was too weak to say no to them and stand against their will. Apart from that he had never seen any battle in his life let alone be fighting. As far as his own palace and administration were concerned, he has been quoted as a henpecked husband by British writers and in various books. His sons were not capable of either fighting or to rule the country their ancestors had been ruling since last 330 years with great gallantry. So much was his helplessness that he could not say no to the sepoys when they asked for his support even when he himself didn’t want to support them. They compelled him and they were in his palace after killing soldiers of the fort making it their camp and he had to give them his consent which he did eventually. He was also a gullible person who was expeditious in making decisions which were generally wrong quite all the time. Actually Zafar was not like the earlier emperors of his dynasty. He never had any quality to accomplish him as a king. He himself called him a Sufi fakir many times in his life. But one quality that he had had made him a highly deferential monarch of his dynasty at the time of his realm. It was his pluralistic nature which makes him somewhere close to being a great ruler. Such was the faith of both his Hindu and Muslim subjects in him that the sepoys which included both the communities wanted to fight and rebel under his Mughal flag and his patronage. Had it not been the case, rebellious sepoys whose sixty percent included Hindus would not have headed towards him ready to fight against the British. But nothing helped the people of the most civilized and cultured city of Hindustan at the time of the mutiny-Delhi. The moment the rebellious sepoys entered the city of Delhi and had taken over the fort- they commenced the acts which left the city scarred to an extent that those scars were very very hard to be forgotten by the people who saw their people being butchered, who witnessed it and escaped it somehow. All the shops were plundered, mass slaughter of Christians irrespective of their age and gender left the literature hub of the country like butchery. But what is worth noticing here is that not only Christians but in the name of rebellion and fighting against the Christians, sepoys also looted and killed many shopkeepers, businessmen or in short elite class of the city who were of course no Christian. Abductions and rapes were rampant in the same intensity. Many of the people belonging to particular communities also got involved in the pillage and some people took the advantage to settle scores with the people they held personal grudges for. Zafar was summoned in his own court as a convict. He was completely broken-down by then. He was too old and dilapidated to endure the treatment he was being given by the authority of the company. According to some letters of the officers present at his hearing event, he wouldn’t even pay any heed to what was going on. He would lean back on the cushions and his eyes were closed except at some moments when he would suddenly open his eyes and look to see what seemed to be an interesting thing to him or something relevant to his golden era of rule.
At last he was found guilty and was exiled to Rangoon where he died in the year 1862 in sheer destitute. This was Bahadur Shah Zafar and this was his story. But if you are going by the name of the book and under the impression that this book is a biography of Zafar of cover his lifespan, you might get disappointed as it deals with the mutiny phase and how Mughal empire came to an end as the book’s name very aptly suggests.
The manoeuvre in which Dalrymple has described each single event is highly commendable. Not only this but to make the point clear and to make people understand the dire situation of the city of Delhi at the time of the outbreak and its aftermath, he has also very perfectly shown how Delhi looked like before the mutiny; how it once was a literary hub of the nation; how Hindus and Muslims coexisted with each other heartily in the reign of Zafar before the outbreak and also how rich Delhi was in terms of culture, art, literature, culinary and other such civilized manners. Dalrymple has used the epistles written by the officers of the time perfectly at places and has mastered the skill of narration. “The city of Djinns” writer has a perfect command over storytelling and has woven the whole background of outbreak and it’s after effects till the death of the last Mughal and the end of a magnificent dynasty of Asia in an impeccable manner. Dalrymple has used different books as well to quote or tell different versions or take of different personnel regarding different incidents.
In short The Last Mughal is another masterpiece by Dalrymple and a must read for all the history lovers. Not only history lovers but it’s also for readers who have a craving for the books which are class apart from the others not so good bestsellers these days. It has reality, it has hard and bitter truth and it’s a journey or a beginning of an end of an emperor and thus has to be on the book shelf of every book lover.