“Don't let the subtitle of this book fool you...this book is so much more than a tale of love and betrayal in 18th century India!! It is also a political, cultural, artistic, and architectural picture of India and the English presence at that time.
White Mughals is a very thoroughly researched work documenting Hyderabad in the 1700's. It starts off romantically enough, with the author making a hasty visit to the bazaar in Hyderabad, in search of a typical type of box produced in the area to bring back home as gifts. A young boy miscontrues his request for "boxes" as books and leads him to a stall stuffed to the ceiling with books and contemporary correspondence concerning the history of the city. The author has discovered a treasure trove of history, much of it unknown to the world outside of the Indian subcontinent; of particular interest to Mr. Dalrymple is the account of the love between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and a Muslim descendant of the prophet (sayidda), Khair un-Nissa.
The book details the very tolerant and acceptance of the British "residents," or ambassadors to the various courts in India to the local culture. It appears that most of the English residents at the time completely immersed themselves in the culture of their surroundings. They adopted native dress and customs, took on multiple wives and concubines, and some converted to Islam in order to marry their paramours. These were the "white mughals" of the title.
The English in India (mostly men) arrived at a very young age, no one being accepted into the service of the British East India Company after the age of sixteen. At such an impressionable age, it is not surprising that these enterprising men chose to adopt the customs of the country in which they came of age. However, near the end of the century, attitudes were beginning to change, for the worse in my opinion.
The arrival of Cornwallis, fresh from his defeat at the hands of the rebel American forces under the command of George Washington, was unwilling to have any English interest under his command to be defeated by a colonial populace. Thus sounded the death knell for the atmosphere of intermingling of cultures that had previously been accepted in India. The children of Anglo-Indian couples became marginalized, and tolerance of relationships with native women were frowned upon.
At about this time, James Achilles Kirkpatrick became enamoured of the beautiful Khair un-Nissa. She was only 14 at the time she first glimpsed Kirkpatrick, and she was already betrothed to another...however through her persistence, along with a dramatic threat of suicide, allowed her to attain her goal of a life with Kirkpatrick. James was equally besotted with Khair, and endured several enquiries into the nature of his involvement with the noble lady. He eventually underwent circumcision and a conversion to Islam in order to marry her. However, it was not until after the birth of their first child that James brought Khair un-Nissam to live with him as his wife at the British Residency of Hyderabad.
After enticing us with this extremely romantic story, the author then goes on for about 200 pages about the political machinations of the time, describing battles, the presence of the French as a threat to British colonialism, and other things I found somewhat marginally interesting. However, I was totally engaged by the descriptions of the bazaars, the streets of Hyderabad and its mansions as well as its squalor. I particularly loved the depictions of how scent played a role in romance...how layers of perfume would be diffused through a courtyard in order to encourage the pursuit of love.
The last 50 pages really addressed the aforementioned subtitle of the book....the tragedy of the disintegration of the Kirkpatrick family through death and separation, the mourning of a mother and wife for her absent children and dead husband, and the ultimate betrayal experienced by Khair un-Nissa at her most vulnerable time.
I felt much sympathy for Khair un-Nissa, her mother Sharaf un-Nissa, and the children Sahib Allum and Sahib Begum. Therein lies the true tragedy of the changing attitudes of the time. As a mother myself, I can sincerely imagine Khair un-Nissa's suffering.
If you, the reader of this review, have a keen interest of an almost scholarly overview of the history of Hyderabad and the English presence there, I highly recommend this book. However, if your interest in non-fiction is not your utmost interest, I would recommend a somewhat lighter, less detailed read. There are many footnotes that are very informative, but often take up at least a quarter of the page one is reading. Although I found many of these footnotes to be fascinating and informative, I often had to go back to re-read the actual text in order to replace myself in its narrative.
As a lover of historical fiction, I would completely and totally be interested seeing the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa to be produced in that format...a historical costume drama film adaptation of their relationship would also be immensely interesting!”