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review 2020-09-05 18:45
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India - William Dalrymple

I have a lot of admiration for this author’s Nine Lives, and The Anarchy is highly informative. But this book is supposedly a love story, which isn't actually all that well-documented and for which the author puts on heavily rose-tinted glasses to ignore the fact that the participants were aged 35 and 13 and that we know almost nothing about her life, thoughts, or feelings. In reality, the book is in part a biography of East India Company official James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and in part a very detailed and heavily footnoted account of the British presence in India from about 1798-1806.

So. Kirkpatrick was a Resident of the East India Company in Hyderabad, essentially an ambassador to the princely court there, a position from which he built himself a monumental residence and negotiated treaties that strengthened the British and weakened the Hyderabadis (at times he felt bad about this but not bad enough to resign). He wrote a bunch of letters which from a modern point-of-view look awfully patronizing (referring to the Nizam, or local ruler, as “old Nizzy,” or giving himself credit for “convincing” the Indian authorities to do any useful thing they did); it’s hard to parse this stuff because the author never addresses it.

Kirkpatrick also, at the age of 35, slept with a 13-year-old girl from an aristocratic Muslim family, whom he got pregnant and then married. Now, I know that conventions about age and sex were different in many historical time periods, but rather than talking about that at all, Dalrymple seems to hope readers won't notice. In fact his description of the early years of this “romance” entirely obscures the age issue by stating vaguely that Khair un-Nissa was “probably in her early teens” and then quickly moving on. That uncertainty was apparently cleared up in Dalrymple’s own mind by the later chapters, at which point he states without ambiguity that she was 19 when their oldest child was 5. Dalrymple further tries to paper over the consent issue by emphasizing the fact that Khair un-Nissa’s male relatives, and Kirkpatrick himself—when accused of rape by a third party for what Dalrymple insists were purely specious and political reasons, to drive a wedge between her male relatives and the British—portrayed her as the initiator. Which in my mind just makes it worse (most of us would be pretty disgusted by a 35-year-old man excusing himself with “but the 13-year-old totally initiated!” regardless of whether it was true, in part because this is such a common line in the sex offender playbook), especially since Khair un-Nissa’s own voice is entirely absent from the book. None of her letters survived, and she’s viewed almost entirely through male eyes.

The couple go on to get married and have a couple of kids whom he insists on shipping off to his relatives in England at the tender ages of 5 and 3, at which point they’re forbidden from corresponding with their mother or her relatives. We don’t actually know much about their marriage because Kirkpatrick didn’t write much about it, but the author infers a lot. Both parties then die young. Dalrymple insists on viewing Khair un-Nissa as a tragic heroine throughout, based on what seems to be pretty scanty evidence. In a place and time when medical knowledge was still quite basic and a doctor even feeling a woman’s pulse was reserved for serious circumstances, I wouldn’t infer that she died of a broken heart from the simple fact that the doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause.

At any rate, Dalrymple never reckons with the fact that his supposedly beautiful true love story involves a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl, and has little to say about the fact that we don’t hear her voice at all. But then, the relationship is only a focal point of a book that is largely comprised of the author squeezing in whatever bits of history seem to have caught his fancy. Someone goes to a festival, and we get a 6-page history of the festival and description of relevant buildings. Someone visits Calcutta, and we get 6 pages describing its society. Someone remodels a building and we get endless discussion of architecture and the hiring of workmen. It can be pretty interesting, but it also makes the book quite dense, especially with all the tiny footnotes, which I think are overkill for a non-academic work. The publishers could have made the book much more readable by actually naming the chapters and sections (and making sure to space out section breaks more evenly) to make it easier for readers to find what interests them. Instead it’s a wall of text full of tangents and extraneous details; no wonder many readers were frustrated. I nearly gave up on it myself.

Despite all its flaws, though, I did find the book interesting, and in the end did read it all. I do appreciate details and specifics and this book has them in abundance. It seems well-researched and the author’s basic thesis, that in the 18th century the British in India did far more to assimilate than their hoity-toity 19th century successors, is also quite interesting. Those looking for a detailed picture of an era would be well-advised to pick this up, though those expecting a love story might do better to avoid it.

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review 2020-04-06 21:29
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire - William Dalrymple

This is a very informative history of how the British East India Company colonized India. It begins with the formation of the company in 1599, but the crucial time period on which most of the book is spent is from about 1750 to 1803, when the British took advantage of the implosion of the Mughal Empire to take over first Bengal, then other Mughal territories, and finally other Indian kingdoms entirely, through a combination of war, financial maneuvers and diplomacy. In some ways the fact that it was a private company rather than a government doing all this feels almost incidental, as the East India Company was more or less a government (hiring its own armies, coining its own money, collecting taxes, etc.), with the exception that milking as much out of its subjects as possible was actually its overt goal, with all that wealth being taken back to England.

This isn’t a time period about which much has been written, considering the massive ramifications and the fact that English-speakers’ involvement would lead one to expect these events to be well-known in the English-speaking world. Dalrymple covers the many maneuverings, battles, atrocities, and personalities involved in detail. It’s very much a political/military/diplomatic history, giving little sense of what daily life in India was like, particularly for Indians, but even with a fairly narrow focus it’s a chunky read. Dalrymple draws from a wide variety of sources, including sources in Persian, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil, which makes the book feel much more complete than most stories of colonial takeover – although I think he might use slightly more, or more varied, sources in English, at no point did the book leave me in doubt about the goals, feelings or activities of the Indian rulers and their generals. There’s probably around as much information on Indian affairs as British ones.

All that said, I didn’t love this book. Perhaps because so many important figures drop in and out (between deaths and, for the British, retiring or being recalled to England, most leaders don’t seem to last more than about 10 years), and because there’s so much political and military ground to cover, the book is a bit dry even though Dalrymple is clearly doing his best to make an engaging narrative of it, and doesn’t ever get too bogged down in mundane detail. There’s a lot of atrocity: famines, war, and a great deal of torture. And perhaps most relevantly regarding the book’s quality, Dalrymple seems to take somewhat black-and-white views of the personalities involved. Most of them come across as villainous, which almost always seems justified by their activities, but I couldn’t quite get behind his admiration for Warren Hastings, or distaste for Philip Francis on the apparently sole basis of his enmity toward Hastings. No matter how admirable Hastings might have been in his personal life, or how much true attachment he felt toward India, he nevertheless presided over a part of its destruction.

In the end, this is a valuable book, very informative, professionally put together and well-sourced, with an extensive bibliography, useful glossary and many color plates showing relevant Indian and European artwork. All around, an admirable work. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief to be done with it.

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review 2020-02-25 22:35
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
Nine Lives - William Dalrymple

This is a fascinating book, in which the author captures nine particularly compelling stories of lives defined by religion in India, generally in unusual or extreme ways. The most intense stories come at the beginning: the Jain nun who ritually starves herself to death while her best friend looks on; the prison warden who spends three months of the year as a dancer believed to be possessed by a god. But they’re all interesting, including a Tibetan monk who renounced his vows to fight the Chinese; an illiterate performer of ancient epics; and a manufacturer of idols. The author relates the stories in his subjects’ own words (presumably cleaned up a bit for print), without judgment, and supplements them with information about the history and wider context of their particular practices. The book makes no pretensions to being representative. These nine people – five men and four women, and their communities – simply happened to be striking to him. Most of the stories focus on distinct traditions within Hinduism, though there’s one Sufi story set in Pakistan, as well as the Tibetan monk and Jain nuns. They’re all intensely invested in their faiths, which for most of them have come to form their entire community. Except perhaps for the idol manufacturer, they’re also quite marginalized: they have always been poor, or they gave up relative privilege, possessions, even family relationships, to take to the roads as a spiritual calling. Many talk about having been spiritual since childhood, but most of these lives are also examples of people picking up the pieces after trauma and loss. All of which makes for a heartfelt, captivating book that promises no more than it can deliver, that doesn’t water down these people’s stories by trying to universalize them. And the book can stand on its own; it doesn’t need to deliver a lecture on religion in India, beyond providing background for these specific people. I think it’s more powerful that way, though I couldn’t help wanting to draw a larger meaning from it. These nine people’s relationships to religion were remarkable to me, as an American: I’m used to religiosity being largely about righteousness, power, and complacency, an excuse to look down on others or refrain from addressing social or environmental problems, or at best a way of staking a claim on a particular social identity. For these nine people, it’s something different: they seemed to be searching, rather than claiming to have all the answers, and one of the things they’re seeking are worthwhile and meaningful lives. But is this actually a difference between India and the U.S. overall? – I don’t know. (And perhaps if I had grown up around their traditions I would have seen more self-righteousness in these folks too.) Marginalized people all over the world turn to religion for the same reasons these nine people do, and India is hardly free of people who use religion for political and exclusionary ends. I would have liked Dalrymple to have drawn some conclusions – notably, the book has no epilogue – though I recognize that wasn’t his goal here. At any rate, quite a good book and one I would recommend, so long as you’re interested in reading about the lives of a few striking individuals rather than a broader sociological study.

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review 2019-02-14 09:26
Not for me - sorry
It Will All Hurt, Vol. 1 - Farel Dalrymple

I abandoned this after Part Two. This is a bit of a vanity project, mysterious and magical but disjointed and not particularly clear. Maybe I missed the point but, although the artwork is good enough, I wasn't enjoying it.

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text 2018-12-13 18:25
Reading progress update: I've read 363 out of 592 pages.
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 - William Dalrymple

This is proving to be another book that I should have read ages ago, as Dalrymple's description of the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion/Uprising is helping me to better understand it than anything I have read until now.

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