A response by William Dalrymple
1. Re your comment:
There is plenty to call Dalrymple on -
1. The selling of 1857 in the media as an “Jihad”.
It is however quite true that the jihadi element in 1857 was something that I did consciously emphasise while promoting the book in the US ,as it gives the book a relevance to people who might have no idea who the Mughals are in the first place. I don’t think this is illegitimate, as long as the jihadi element is kept in proportion.
2. As I have attempted to tell the human story of Delhi before during and after 1857, there was little opportunity to engage with Subaltern work, given that no subaltern has written on this topic. The one Subaltern essay I have seen about 1857, Gautam Bhadra’ s, I liked very much, as someone pointed out in the blog. As I have made clear in all my interviews, I believe there are many ways to write history. The pomo/poco crowd and the subalterns don’t in general particularly light my fire, and its true I find their obscurantist mangling of the English language irritating, and that I prefer empirical research to theory, but if thats what they are into, fine. I have certainly never written about them with ‘bile’.
I am simply writing in a quite different historiographical tradition and happen to admire Simon Schama, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Steven Runciman’s way of writing and presenting history, recreating real human lives from the past in good accessable prose. I do think there need be no contradiction between researching professionally and exhaustively, and then writing up what you find in good, clear and attractive English. If you write only for other professional historians, and in a form of dense academese that almost deliberately excludes the general reader, you become like mediaeval churchmen cloaking their obscurantism in mediaeval Latin.
I firmly believe that if you do not feed intelligent accurate history to a general middle class audience, historical mythology will take its place- as one can see whenever you attend a Middle Class party in Delhi and here the nonsense people spout about the Mughals and how the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple etc etc. As I wrote in an NYRB essay last year:
“Exacerbating the problem in the long term is the absence of genuinely accessible, well-written and balanced histories of India… This as much as anything else has allowed myths to replace history among India’s middle class, who are keen consumers of fiction, but have surprisingly little home-grown non-fiction to interest them: one of the remarkable features of the recent spectacular burst of creativity among Indian writers has been the absence of much serious biography or narrative history. Though Indian historians produce many excellent specialist essays and numerous learned journals, and it is impossible, for example, to buy an up-to-date and accessible biography of any of India’s pre-Colonial rulers.
Here perhaps lies one of the central causes of the current impasse. It is not just up to the politicians. Unless Indian historians learn to make their work intelligible and attractive to a wider audience, and especially to their own voraciously literate middle class, unhistorical myths will continue to flourish.
I don’ t think I am alone in feeling this. Here was a comment by one recent blogger about the book:
“I enjoyed greatly his little dig at the Subaltern Studies school and their tendency to cloak a lack of genuine research by etymological obfuscation and a continual use of abstract terminology. As Dalrymple demonstrates, the subaltern voice can be recovered, but it involves moving your fat arse off the seat of your luxurious office provided by your well-paid American university post, and searching through dusty archives in India. One piece of genuine history is worth a thousand pieces of theorising introspection from the field of post-colonial studies. It is a great irony that characters like Spivak and Bhabha enshrine the imputed qualities of self-serving over-clever deviousness that led the colonisers to hold the “Educated Baboo” in contempt”.
Incidentally, the fact that the Last Mughal has sold coming on for 40,000 hardback in India in under five months shows the massive and currently unsatisfied appetite that exists for well-written but serious history. Compare the number of scholarly but accessable and well written histories and biographies on American history that exist in any Borders, with the almost complete absence of anything comparable in Indian bookshops.
3. While I am not an academic, I am a little bemused by the idea of being a pariah in academe, given that I have received two D Litts, Honoris Causa, in the last year and spent much of the last six months doing little else but give seminars in universities. I attach the reviews the book has received and you will see that the book has had an amazingly generous reception from both academics and non-academic reveiwers. To date the book has not recieved a single outrighty hostile review, and only a couple of mixed ones.
Moreover both my history books have won major history prizes- I am esp proud of the Wolfson Prize for History which is arguable Britain’s grandest history award. Previous winners include Simon Schama, Keith Thomas, Steven Runciman, Owen Chadwick, Christopher Bayly, Norman Stone, Richard Cobb, Orlando Figes, Roy Porter, John Bossy, Lords Skidelski and Bullock and Linda Colley: a pretty comprehensive list of Britain’s most celebrated professional historians. It is really as high an honour as a British historian could ask for.
[In case its of interest here is the full list http://www.wolfson.org.uk/pdf/previouswinners.pdf
The judges are Sir Keith Thomas FBA (Chairman), Professor Averil Cameron CBE FBA, Professor Richard Evans FBA and Professor David Cannadine FBA.]
4. I never claimed the Mutiny Papers were “utterly unknown”- what I say was “virtually unused”- which is true: around 75% of the papers Mahmood and I called up had never been accessed before, and has no accession stamps on the files. Irfan Habib had not seen the book when he wrote the piece in Outlook. Since then he has done so and liked it. He has recommended it in his writings, invited me to speak at Aligarh and asked me to contribute to a book the Aligrah lot are putting together about 1857. Here was my reponse in Outlook to his essay.
“As a huge admirer of Professor Habib’s work- which is cited frequently throughout the Last Mughal- I am profoundly flattered that India’s greatest Mughal scholar has seen fit to comment so thoughtfully and at such length on my book. I am however a little surprised that a man famous for his scrupulous use of primary sources has done so without first looking at the text in question. Had he read even the introduction, he would have found that I have not said, written or implied, any of the following statements which he seems to attribute to me.
1. That Indian historians are either ‘lazy’ or ‘lethargic’.
2. That I am the first person to write the history of 1857 from Urdu and Persian sources.
3. That the Mutiny Papers in the National Archives are uncatalogued.
4. That I discovered the collection.
5. That to use British sources is “a sin to be avoided”.
6. That I compare Muslim sepoys to jihadis.
What I have said is that I am a little surprised that a collection as astonishingly rich and as beautifully catalogued as the Mutiny Papers, and one located so centrally in the National Archives of the capital city, within sight of Rashtrapati Bhavan, have been so little consulted. After all, the contents- some 20,000 Urdu and Persian documents- describe in fabulous detail what happened in Delhi- the destination of around 100,000 of the total 139,000 rebel sepoys. It is a collection which uniquely preserves the actions and thoughts of the courtiers, the soldiers of the different sepoy regiments, and both the elite and the ordinary people of Delhi throughout the largest upheaval to rock Hindustan in the course of the entire nineteenth century.
As I acknowledge in the book, several specialist papers and a full length biography of Zafar in Urdu, have previously been written from the contents of the collection. But of the documents studied by myself and my colleague Mahmood Farooqui over four years of intensive research, fully 75% had never before been requisioned, as was clear both from the absence of any previous stamps or requisition details on the files in question (the archives list on each file the dates and names of everyone who calls them up), and from the comments of the archivists. As the staff of the archives confirmed to me this weekend, over the last two decades several scholars have found the catalogue (which was printed in 1921 and is available in libraries worldwide- my own copy was borrowed from the London Library in St James Square, so is surely also available in that of Prof Habib’s AMU) and called up some of the papers, but most have given up after seeing the difficulty of the shikastah in which the documents are written. For cracking this, I have the skills and amazing perseverance of Mahmood to thank.
As for Professor Habib’s charge that I make an “unfortunate assumption” that the Muslim sepoys were precursors to the jihadis of today, this is also quite incorrect. The precursors of the jihadis of today were the self-described jihadis of 1857, who were quite separate from the sepoys, and who gathered in some numbers in Delhi from centres such as Tonk, Patna and Gwalior. These ordinary Muslim civilians whose own petitions to Zafar in the Mutiny Papers describe themselves as jihadis, mujahedin and ghazis, had taken up arms to fight for their faith against the aggressive intrusions of the Christian West, whose representatives they invariably describe using religious language as kafir (infidels) and nasrani (Christians) rather than in more secular terms as Angrez, Firangis or goras.
As I describe at some length in my book, during the ‘Id of 1857, these jihadis seriously threatened the intercommunal harmony successfully maintained by both the court and the sepoys, when they announced they wished to slaughter a cow on the steps of the Jama Masjid, something Zafar eventually dissuaded them from doing. Indeed it is the way Zafar continually fights for Hindu-Muslim unity in the face of the extremists, and his insistence on holding the jihadi spirit at bay, that forms the basis of my admiration both for him and the composite culture he represents.
I have sent Professor Habib a copy of my book, and if he ever finds the time to read it, and gets from it even a fraction of the enjoyment that I have received from his remarkable body of work, I will be more than satisfied.”