White Mughals

I recently read William Dalrymple's White Mughals. The book surveys the lives of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, an officer in the East India Company, and Khair un-Nissa, a Hyderabadi Muslim princess.

In 1798, Kirkpatrick and Khair meet. Later they fall in love, marry, and have two children. And then the story becomes tragic: the children are sent (by their father) to England to be educated, Kirkpatrick dies of a tropical disease, and Khair is alone and broken-hearted.

The story of the two lovers illustrates an important point: in the early stages of British colonization, British-Indian marriages were relatively common and many British and Indians lived in a hybrid world. The first East India Company employees who came to the subcontinent knew that they had to stay in India for years, sometimes decades. They knew that there was a good chance that they would die in India. As a consequence, many of these Company men "became Indian." They learned the languages, wore Indian dress, and some of them converted to Islam and (less frequently) to Hinduism. As Dalyrymple writes:

[from 1770 to 1830], there was wholesale interracial sexual exploration and surprisingly widespread cultural assimilation and hybridity… Virtually all Englishmen in India at this period Indianized themselves to some extent. Those who went further and converted to Islam or Hinduism, or made really dramatic journeys across cultures, were certainly always a minority; but they were probably nothing like as small a minority as we have been accustomed to expect. (10)

Many of the Company employees did not fully "go native" but instead lived with Indian mistresses and fathered Anglo-Indian children. This was the norm, as there were few British women in India and many of the Company's workers preferred Indian women to European women.

One European who preferred Indian women to British was Major General Charles Stuart, better known as "Hindoo Stuart." Stuart, born in Ireland, came to India in his teenage years, and converted to Hinduism. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Stuart wrote articles in the Calcutta Telegraph in which he tried to convince European women in the city to wear the sari:

The majority of Hindoo [sic.] women are comparatively small, yet there is much voluptuousness of appearance: - a fulness [sic.] that delights the eye… a sleekness and purity of skin… For my own part, I already begin to think the dazzling brightness of a copper coloured face, infinitely preferable to the pallid and sickly hue of the European fair. (44)

Another member of this racially and culturally hybrid world was William Palmer, son of a British general and a Hyderabadi Muslim noblewoman. Palmer was baptized as a Christian but was raised as a Muslim. He was able to flawlessly switch between English, Persian, and Urdu, and was fully comfortable in British and Hyderabadi societies.

The hybrid world that Dalyrimple describes comes to a close after the Revolt of 1857. This world died for several reasons: first, racist ideology (in this case, anti-Indian racism) was gaining prominence in nineteenth century Britain - racially mixed children were not accepted as equal in England, and racially mixed marriages were discouraged; second, the memsahibs arrived in large numbers after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; third, Crown rule created institutions that isolated British culture (and British people) from the Indians; fourth, military rule (to be backed by force) was extended to the entire subcontinent.

While I very much enjoyed learning about Khair un-Nissa and James Kirkpatrick, my favorite parts of the book were the tangents. In these tangents, Dalrymple examines the lifestyles of both common and courtly people in the Deccan of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

He quotes Edward Strachey, a British traveler and civil servant in India visiting the durbar of Nizam of Hyderabad. Strachey met Aristu Jah, the Nizam's prime minister:

When he began to speak, the [servant took the hookah] out again, stroked the whiskers with the mouthpiece and again put it to his master's mouth at the proper time. When the minister made a movement as if he was disposed to spit, one of his faithful attendants held out both hands and received a huge mouthful of spittle, with great care he then wiped it on a cloth which was by him and wrapped it up carefully, appearing then ready to receive in his hands any such deposit however precious, which his master might think fit to place there. (89)

In a particularly fascinating tangent, Dalrymple examines Islamic birth control methods practiced in eighteenth century India:

Birth control methods varied widely around the Islamic world, and there are a great number of texts suggesting a variety of techniques, ranging from coitus interruptus to more bizarre solutions such as suppositories containing rennet of rabbit, "broth of wall flower and honey" and "leaves of weeping willow in a flock of wool" (a popular option in medieval Persia). But birth control was not just the woman's business: male contraceptive techniques included "drinking juice of watermint at coitus," rubbing the juice of an onion or a solution of rock salt onto the end of the penis, or, more alarmingly, smearing the entire penis with tar. Other mysterious solutions to the problems of Islamic family planning included "fumigation with elephant's dung" and, stranger still, "jumping backwards." (233)

He ends the book on an optimistic note:

As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again. (501)

While I agree with the author that "East and West are not irreconcilable," I think it's important to note that Kirkpatrick and Nissa were iconoclastic, and above all, bold.

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