On September 14, 1857, British Troops launched an attack on the besieged city of Delhi, bringing a bloody end to the Sepoy Mutiny by massacring not only the rebels, but also the ordinary citizens of the Mughal capital. 159 years later to the day, on a pleasant autumn evening in the national Capital, memories of the faded grandeur of imperial Delhi hung heavy in the air as William Dalrymple sat down for a discussion on his most famous work, ‘The Last Mughal’.
The event which celebrated the Hindustani edition of Dalrymple’s magnum opus was also attended by its translator Zakia Zaheer and singer Vidya Shah. The session at the Oxford Bookstore was marked by readings and music, and brought alive historical references for the audience, as the panel took them through the vivid descriptions of life from the Mughal era.
Dalrymple described how Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughals, was someone who was “quite magnificently unsuited to lead a revolution” of the scale of the 1857 mutiny. “The face off was between two different worlds,” Dalrymple said. A doomed romantic figure like Zafar on one side of the ring against the East India Company - a force that was four times the size of the British Army in the year of the mutiny.The East India Company was, as Dalrymple put it, like an evil multinational corporation, with the difference that it had an army.
“For the last 100 years, we have been taught to think about colonialism as the British coming here. But it is much worse than that – it is a multinational corporation, like Union Carbide with armies, Google with weapons, Rio Tinto with infantry regiments,” he said. The scale of killings on that fateful day was on a level that was infinitely greater than the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh, Dalrymple said. English troops proceeded to systematically murder every able citizen at gunpoint, leaving the city of half a million people an empty ruin.
Zakia Zaheer who spent a year translating the book in Hindi, meanwhile read out captivating excerpts from the translated version of the book, describing the majestic sheen of the Mughal court at a time when it still held some semblance of power. The readings were interspersed with soulful vocals by singer Vidya Shah, who has also worked with Dalrymple earlier in a concert based on the book.
Zaheer also stated that Dalrymple had offered an impartial account of all the facts in his book. When asked to elaborate on his idea of history being written from the point of view of the vanquished and not the victor in his book, the author said, “The whole exercise is in essence to try and bring back the Indian version. Normally the excuse is this, that there are no documents. So one has to always use the British texts. Right from the beginning, I knew that there were papers in the national archives. 20,000 documents taken from the rebel camps which were used for evidence in the trails that followed. I came across this stash of papers while researching for my previous book. So that was the heart of the whole project, putting the defeated side story forward.”
Dalrymple also spoke about the writer’s block, “I think if you’re well planned and have got everything organized, there’s no excuse for having the writer’s block while writing non-fiction. The story is already in front of you. You know what’s happening. I spent 4-5 years preparing my ingredients, if you like it, and only then did I write. If you’re well organised you shouldn’t have the writer’s block. That’s something novelists experience when they are writing fiction”, He is currently writing a book on the Kohinoor diamond.