Return of the White Rabbit

A response by William Dalrymple

Manan just looked through the amazingly long discussion your review provoked- very flattering to see people engaging with the book. A few small points, and please feel free to post any of this that you want to:

1. Re your comment:
There is plenty to call Dalrymple on –
1. The selling of 1857 in the media as an “Jihad”.

Continue reading “Return of the White Rabbit”


Attended a talk yesterday on Hindi cinema after which the conversation turned to cinema and the imagination of an Indian nation. Later, I went to to find out about a Mani Ratnam movie and came across the following forum-message attached to Ratnam’s in-production Mahabharata. I don’t know what the online etiquette is of quoting a forum post but I must share this message that simply floored me – the reading of recent cinema, imagining a Hindustan through its epics, and a particularly specific national spirit. After the fold.
Continue reading “Expectations”

A Man in His Time

I am vexed by a conversation today on Fresh Air about historian Robert Dallek’s new book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. I am vexed because I consider my perceptions of Nixon’s memory more positively than I do my present perceptions of 43. I’m a former movement conservative, and a fan of Hunter Thompson, which means I hate Nixon’s ghost for the reactive Reagan-as-savior madness it bred and how it can be described justly, in Thompson’s apoplectic prose. He was dark, and evil, and we are better to have rid ourselves of him. Why then, do I regard his memory with greater esteem than I do the White House’s current occupant?

For one thing, 43 is clearly the worse of the pair on many counts: Nixon was a grudging Keynesean who considered instituting a living wage, 43 is an unabashed Norquistiista who would cut Larry Ellison’s taxes while adopting his spending habits; Nixon established the EPA and watched Earth Day take root, Bush bailed on Kyoto, snuggles up to oil companies, and encourages his EPA to toe an industry-drawn line; Nixon was a part-time anti-Semite who relied almost pathologically on a German Jew, and protected Israel out of realpolitikal sense, 43 is a pro-Semite who wards Israel so it may host Armageddon, and counts as his closest advisors people who worship a Jew loudly but apparently have never read the words ascribed to Him; Nixon engaged America’s enemies while searching for advantages in peace, however short, however mercenary, while 43 senselessly mongers war against former intelligence assets who left the reservation, to no one’s benefit but America’s avowed enemies; Nixon sucked gin and popped pills and waxed paranoid, 43 teetotals and swigs near-beer and never wavers; Nixon galvanized the left, and chagrined the right, and made of himself a target that no one could deny, 43 incenses the left, and is so shameless in his stubbornness that the right follows him, if for no other reason than to see exactly how far he will take his naked Emperor’s stroll, and has made a political target of himself so egregious and obvious that even his staunchest enemies have sworn off engaging him. It would be unseemly to pick so low-hanging a fruit.

But–and this is where CM’s audience should sigh with relief, because we have met the moment of relevance to common interest–Nixon’s memory is greater than 43’s present, and future, because Nixon saw himself, however imbued with hubris, within the confines of historical narrative. He was a Constitutional creature, playing by established rules, in a zero-sum game. He knew he could lose, and when he did, finally, lose, at the hand of the Supreme Court, which ordered him to turn over his tapes, he ultimately did an historically honorable thing. He fell on his sword.

Also, consider that he was taping himself, and his subordinates in the first place–there are myriad other reasons he might have used such a system, but significant among them had to be that he considered the actions of his office as necessarily historic, in the most common sense of the word. He was the temporary holder of an office that was, as much as Augustus’ throne ever did, shaping the world on the fly. He cared about history, and his place in it. Call it megalomania, but at least Nixon recognized there was a flow, that he was part of it, that some aspects of it were bigger than him and beyond his control, and that others might stand over his grave, poring through transcripts, ascribing, finally, right and wrong to his days.

43, who would slap a top-secret stamp on used toilet paper, relies on secrecy not because he fears history, but because he does not believe in it. The neocon reality arrives as he wills it, and disappears as he dispatches it. The Constitution appears to be nothing more than a speed-bump for him to flatten with signing statements. His “election” in 2000 was a priest-king’s restoration after an unseemly eight years of excessive populism and heretical rationality. 43 may not understand history, yet if he would but scan it he would notice himself inside, recurrent and perennial: he is the insane last child of a failed dynasty; he is pockmarked, petulant and riven with sickness in the heart and mind. He sits enthroned astride the globe convinced by experience and the fawning of of his acolytes that his potent will raises and lowers the sun. They have said as much: it is a new world. They make reality. By denying history, they glaze the man with historicity.

We might call him Ozymandias, and compare the irony inherent in it all to Nixon’s tragic life and fall. But that’s a disservice to Nixon. If there’s an afterlife, and Hell is a part of it, Nixon will have long ago worked his way up the chain of command, doing to Satan’s org chart what he’s done to my sense of American Royal Memory. By the time 43 arrives, this dichotomy of American presidential evil will be manifest in a very ironic and very tragic end that affirms, rather than dispels history’s verve: there’ll be no Americans left in the Inferno’s historical villain’s silo, and our ivy-schooled decider will spend eternity trying to make sense of Caligula’s latinate rantings–43 will think the man a Grecian–warding off the insistent, sodomitical advances of Ernst Roehm and spending the endless night of his reward dabbing the sweat from Chairman Mao’s syphillitically canchred fat rolls, all the while staring up, in the dim, at the crusted half-moon split of Nixon’s superior fundament–who, though evil in his own way, knew that he was a man, and a man in time.

1857 and Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

dalrymplecover.jpgThere is an obvious point that can be made about contestations over the meaning of 1857’s Ghadr [Rebellion] in history and memory of South Asia by simply listing the various terms attached to that event: Sepoy’s Mutiny or Rebellion, First War for Independence, The War/Rebellion of India, Jihad for Freedom, and most recently, The Uprising. Such labels are reflected in the many personal narratives as well as the multitudes of histories that have proliferated since the 1880s in England or in India. Taken together, these primary and secondary narratives cover a broad spectrum of political belief and address diverse audiences and prejudices: colonial and native memoirs of participants and observers; letters and correspondences; professional histories and amateur histories; pulp fictions and dime novels; pamphlets and pleas; ghazals of the court and songs of the bazaar; historical and literary novels; and State publications, functions and commemorations. From 1857 to 2007, cultural memories and political histories have kept 1857 from receding into distant pasts and it remains a subject pliant to everything from the claims on colonial rulers by our postcolonial selves to the constructions of legendary figures and myths. Not to mention that it is used to explain the very nature of Colonialism in South Asia.

Colonial historiography on the Rebellion quickly cemented around John Kaye’s immense three volume A History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-1858 (1868) which portrayed the Rebellion as the mutiny of natives who were inherently incapable of civilizing themselves. Writing against that grain were nationalist historians, such as Savarkar or R.C. Majumdar, who inverted the tropes of colonial historiography to make 1857 the first step on the road to Independence. And more recently, empire historians and postcolonial theorists, and even literary scholars, have utilized the Rebellion as rich grounds for exploring topics as diverse as the breakdowns in the imperial machinery, the location of the subaltern, the colonial gaze, and even, the Rupture.

Gearing up for the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion, there has been a predictable flurry of activity. In the last two years, a number of studies have been published – beginning with Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s slim Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero? and Gautam Chakravarty’s The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination – both of which are well worth reading, by the way, even though I don’t agree with Mukherjee’s reading. The Indian Council of Historical Research has undertaken a series [pdf] of conferences to “mark the 150th year of the First War of Independence, 1857”. Highlighting the meta-ness of the Rebellion, the CPI-M wants to re-enact the fictional cricket match in Lagaan – by pitting the English team against the cricket players from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (or at least they did before the World Cup). Even the Maulvis of Pakistan – where 1857 evokes differing memories – are getting in on the action and plan to visit the erst-while battlegrounds of that anti-colonial jihad. And, of course, the recent movie, The Rising, may have been a critical flop but it generated lots of ink and money across South Asia and the diaspora.

William Dalrymple enters this potent [mine]field of South Asian history and historiography with his newest book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 – a literary historical treatment that is equal parts a biography of the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar and of the city of Delhi around the Rebellion. The work has attracted tremendous attention from the popular press across South Asia, the UK and even in the States- thanks mostly to the energy of Dalrymple who must be every publisher’s dream [click here to get to know his musical taste!]. Most of the buzz around this book, however, stems not from Dalrymple’s decision to write the history of the Rebellion, but rather from some of the sensational claims he makes along the way.1 Lost to all of the (English) historiography on 1857, states Dalrymple is a religious reading of 1857 which reveals that there was significant jihadi participation in the Rebellion. This religious angle, Dalrymple stresses, has been deliberately elided by the Nationalist, Marxist, and Postcolonial historians in service of their ‘secular’ understandings [the hyphened, coloned, alliterative titles of the pomo/poco crowd get mirthful scorn – and deservedly so, in the book’s introduction]. But there are absences greater than that. In his research, Dalrymple claims to have found over 20,000 native primary documents about the Rebellion gathering dust in the National Archives of India, utterly unknown to Indian historians. It seems either no one had looked or no one had the scholarly apparatus to read the shikasta Urdu script of these documents. Needless to say, such claims riled up the sedate fields of Indian History [jk!]. The breathless essays in Outlook India and Times of India were soon followed by some indignant responses by prominent historians. All of which made good stormy fodder for email chains and listservs of South Asian scholars around the world.

A while back, I participated in a Radio Open Source program The First Neo-Cons and “The Last Mughal” which featured Dalrymple (you can stream or download the podcast, if you wish from their website. I am in the last 20 minutes or so, though the whole episode is worth your attention). For the discussion, I read through The Last Mughal and what follows is a rather loose review of the book.
Continue reading “1857 and Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal”

  1. I will leave aside the cheeky claim that this is the first history of the Rebellion from “a properly Indian perspective”. []