Return of the White Rabbit

Posted by sepoy on April 28, 2007 · 14 mins read

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”.

I have NEVER characterised the 1857 uprising as a Jihad. What I have done, and make no apology for doing, is to emphasise the jihadi substratum of the revolt in Delhi which seemed to me to have been somewhat brushed under the carpet by the nationalist historians. About 100,000 sepoys marched to Delhi in 1857; about 25,000 self-described jihadis/Ghazis/Mujahedin also turned up; it seems that both need to be explained and commented on and I have attempted to cover both. I have also emphasised the religious rhetoric of the revolt which unambiguously dominates the proclamations of the rebels in Delhi, both sepoys and jihadis, as well as the texts produced at the time by the local commentators such as Maulvi Mohammad Baqar- see the attached article in the latest issue of Biblio which may clarify this [pdf].

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
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."


Qalandar | April 28, 2007

Awesome response. The "dig" against the mangling of the English language remains unpersuasive (because it does not address those who do not mangle it; plus by referring to Dirks ' "polemics" it confirms my hunch that Dalrymple's problem is with the latter's POLITICS more than anything else), but overall I am super glad that Dalrymple took the time to do this (I should note that none of the "critics" on the other thread suggested that Dalrymple was a "pariah" in academia, I think it was those who were standing up for his non-engagement with the "subalternists" who said so), and I thank both him and sepoy. Dalrymple posits a connection between the mythmaking that passes for history in the subcontinent and the absence of credible "popular" histories. To a certain extent I absolutely agree with him, which is why I am glad that there are signs that things are changing (Dalrymple being the most prominent example). But surely there's more here? Decades ago there were similarly no popular histories, but I suspect fewer people if any were referring to the Taj Mahal as a Shiva temple (btw, contrary to the insinuation here, I disagree that this is a generally held view in Delhi's middle classes). That is, Dalrymple ignores the political dimensions here: it is striking to me that he is willing to place greater responsibility on those who do not write popular history than on those who have been spreading bigotry and propaganda, and a politics of hate, for decades. i.e., should we be blaming Spivak or the RSS if such views have been gaining ground? That being said: 40,000 copies in India in five months? Wow, that is awesome. That's the kind of thing we need more of -- and I submit we need more of it in the context of a book like The Last Mughal, rather than the White Mughals (because the latter is more readily assimilable to the sort of historiography that does not really challenge or subvert received myths). btw, and I know I have mentioned this before: the focus on religious sentiment in 1857 (including a strongly Hindu militant edge along with a Muslim militant one), issues like cow slaughter, and Zafar's attempts to maintain communal harmony in Delhi, are all very much the focus of Rajat Kanta Ray's The Felt Community, a "non-subalternist" who nevertheless owes much to theory. Would be curious what Dalrymple and other folks on these threads make of the book; seems to me it's a logical candidate for being referenced in/with TLM, and I wonder if Ray made use of any of the archives Dalrymple refers to.

lapata | April 28, 2007

WD: Thanks for posting a response to the out of control comment thread and to the review! Now that's what I called engagement with your interlocutors. A few small points: Pariah: I used the term in the specific context of the US South Asia studies environment which is dominated by the poco/pomo crowd, and didn't mean it it be seen as a general commentary on WD's place in academe. The comments in the thread below were actually much kinder and more balanced than what I have heard said specifically about WD by faculty and grad students at major US institutions. At that point in my comment I was specifically addressing the notion that WD's bankability on bestseller lists somehow gave him a position of ascendancy that made it unseemly for him to malign or ignore the Subalterns, who are anything but subaltern in the most prestigious history departments in the US. D. Litt degrees are not awarded in the US, so I'm assuming that those degrees were conferred elsewhere. In the settings I am familiar with, if WD were invited to give a talk, it would either be on invitation from an undergraduate South Asian Students' Association, or from scholars who are not South Asianists. Obfuscatory prose: Even if Nick Dirks writes clearly, he most certainly does not write entertaining popular histories that will be bought up by the truckload by the reading public. There's still a huge difference between work produced primarily for an academic audience and work that is produced for the general public. Having lived long in the belly of the beast, I am deeply opposed to the specialist project of academia, which is endlessly perpetuated by the system of rewards, promotions, publications and reviews that underwrites success in universities. What use are all the training, research, insight, analytic skills that are developed by the scholar if she does no make the fruits of her labor available to the general public? I am not arguing specifically for WD or against ND when I say this, since I haven't read either of them. It's more of an exhortation to you, gentle CM readers, so learned and so talented, to use your research and troves of specialized knowledge to reach out to a reading public that extends further than your narrow professional circle, further still than other, related, narrow professional circles, and take risks. Ask yourself why anyone would care about what you do, and if your answer is that they wouldn't care because they are a bunch of philistines, then you haven't thought the problem through enough. You will not be praised by your colleagues for writing works for popular consumption. You might even jeopardize your bid for tenure. But if you were selling books at the rate of WD, you wouldn' t need that academic job, now would you?

SC | April 28, 2007

I have an observation related to the possibility that Dalrymple has been unaccepted by the poco/sa types because of his gora-ness; this was an issue brought up a while ago which I didn't respond to then, but now I must. Here goes: I am deeply disturbed by Dalrymple's own introduction of "national" or "racial" identity as part of the explanation for the success of his book. Here's an example, from his own response: "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." Thus I now assert, it is WD himself who maintains the color line. It is "Indian" historians who have failed to feed "their Indian readers" the satisfying rigorous and readable history. What's up with this way of talking, and why does he get away with that kind of generalization and racialization? Leave aside the truth that many historians, especially in Delhi, have written histories for "popular consumption." Consider Romila Thapar's interventions within textbooks, the most recent illustrated history of India 2 volume set which I cannot remember the name of, and Sunil Kumar's study of sites of public history, such as the monuments of Delhi, in his "The Present in Delhi's Pasts" published by "three-essays," itself a publication meant to reach a wider audience. (I highly recommend their books.) I think we need to consider seriously WD's politics of identity, not as they occur in his study of 1857 itself, but in the way he speaks about his book and how he situates his contribution to a historical subject alongside other's contributions. In fact, I find WD to be a anti-intellectual intellectual. I would hope that if I write a book which anyone actually reads (a goal I aspire to), that it would make readers want to read other books and become more interested in other History books, and not less interested. So instead of dismissing other History books for the promotion of my own, I would channel the readers curiousity, rather than assuming to have satisfied it with my own book by dismissing others. This, I don't believe, is what WD does. Perhaps I am mistaken, do correct me if so. Furthermore, the difference between professional history writing and popular history writing is hardly black and white (no racial pun intended). There are all sorts of popular histories besides books, there are monuments, tv shows, little historical assumptions made here and there in conversations, and national or religious performances/spectacles on major publicly endorsed holidays which support particular versions of history. Both guild (by which I mean the conceited academic history profession) historians and popular historians find themselves running back and forth between all those realms very often, such that the lines between are practically non existent. There is no history that can be contained to the academy, its virtually impossible. Sure, perhaps only academics read books published by university presses, but this isn't the end of the readership. And sure, perhaps there are those who believe the Taj Mahal is actually Shiv's abode (though I won't dare to generalize they are Delhi's middle classes), but academic historians do not and cannot ignore "the popular." Just a glance at the rise in publications from the academy having to do with the vexed issue of "temple destruction" in the past decade will support this claim. Finally, the sales WD's book enjoys are fabulous, and it is undoubtedly true that the issue of 1857 has been left little treated. However, who are the "Indians" Dalrymple is referring to in his many comments about his own book, and which of his values would he have to get rid of in order to stop saying things like that? And once that changed....who knows where that would lead Mr. WD theoretically? Cuz everyone has a theory, some are just more explicit than others about it.

Qalandar | April 28, 2007

Lapata: aside: what about the reality that some subjects are inherently more popular than others in terms of a lay public, and thus are likely to sell more regardless? Should important work on (e.g.) Mughal land revenue system be shunted aside in favor of work on (e.g.) this or that battle or war. I hear you on accessible history-writing, but where do we stop? An insistence on accessibility can end up not only as an insistence on a certain writing style, but an insistence on a certain sort of SUBJECT too. And this lay reader doesn't want to go back to the "Great Men/Wars/Battles" school of historiography. Your comment on Dirks illustrates precisely my concern about where this sort of thing can lead to: "Even if Nick Dirks writes clearly, he most certainly does not write entertaining popular histories that will be bought up by the truckload by the reading public. " i.e., even if Dirks writes clearly, his subject -- taking Castes of Mind as an example -- namely the impact of colonialism on caste (read, caste identities often taken as "given" in popular writing on the subject) is unlikely to be very popular. Assuming for the sake of argument Dirks passes the "writes well" test, what is to be done here? Should he NOT write on these subjects in favor of stuff that might sell better (the Nehru-Edwina affair, anyone?) There is a place for both, and for recognizing that a lot of history subjects just aren't grist for the bestseller mill -- most people are not very interested in the Meos of Mewat, but that doesn't mean that Shail Mayaram's work on them is obscure, surely. (I might add that Dirks' latest, The Scandal of Empire, is a subject as popular as they come in this field, perhaps a sign that some in academia are trying to reach out to a wider audience). Extended to other fields of human endeavor, one would have to say that Rushdie "ought" to try to be more like Dan Brown, and that if only a few thousand people read him what's the point? I don't think anyone should be snooty about John Grisham or Dan Brown, but let's not be reverse-snooty: if popular accessibility is the only bar, I am afraid we will find that depends on which way we cut it: Dalrymple is "accessible" relative to Judith Butler, but he is not so accessible relative to the film Mangal Pandey -- should we privilege the latter, or should we appreciate that each has its place, its voice, its audience?

Qalandar | April 28, 2007

SC: interesting comment, there's much food for thought there. Btw, by 2 volume popular history are you referring to Irfan Habib's "People's History of India", which is a popular work and written for a younger audience to boot? And your point about academes engaging with popular myths/beliefs is well-taken: just think about the catalogue of "professional" historians who have engaged in public debates and popular writing on the Ayodhya issue, and more broadly on temple destruction in medieval India (e.g. Richard Eaton, writing articles in newsmagazines like Outlook left right and center).

Qalandar | April 28, 2007

From some of Lapata's and sepoy's comments (apologies in advance if I have misunderstood either of you) it seems to me that you two are taking the position that Dalrymple is being critiqued BECAUSE he is a "popular historian" -- that might be true chez certain grad students etc. (as lapata notes), but I haven't seen any of that on this thread. Some of us critique him on other grounds. btw, on that blogger Dalrymple has quoted: it smacks of bad faith to cite Spivak and Bhabha as examples of "bad scholarship" relative to the "good" Dalrymple: I mean for pete's sake, Spivak is not and has never pretended to be a "pure historian". She is a theoretician, and if the question is, does theory X apply to (e.g.) 1857, that isn't something she is doing at all! The "opposition" if there must be one, is not between historians like Dalrymple and "pure" theorists like Spivak, but between the former and other historians (Irfan Habib, Dirks, etc. etc.).

SC | April 28, 2007

Qalandar - perhaps Habib's set is the one I am thinking of, thanks for that. I also meant to note that 1857 is a good topic for public consumption because there is much readiness for it; all those who think of it as anything like the "first war of independence" to "islamic polity revivalism under Zafar" to "the failed attempt at subverting company rule" will all find a book on 1857 appealing, and will buy the book. Chatterjee's Princely Impostor, while much more beautifully written than WD's in my opinion, can't get so many takers, especially not by those who are unfamiliar with the Bhawal-Sannyasi case; but this doesn't make Chatterjee an isolationist professional.

Red | April 28, 2007

Qualander, great points. The NCERT (surprise surprise) has finally introduced a rather well written engaging series of history textbooks which deal with questions like Nationalism and Cricket and introduces themes of cultural and social history. ( WD naturally misses out on are popular histories in vernacular languages. Both Malyalam and Bengali have a rich tradition in the same.Balakrihsna Pillai's work on the history of Kerala (linking the narratives to Rome and Babylon through maritime trade) are fascinating. In Bengali, the historical novel made people familiar with the Indigo revolt (Satyen Sen) and the Battle of Plassey. and the revolt (Sunil Gangopadhaya). While few of these writers have degrees in history (they did have honoris causas like WD though), they do engage with sources and produce a better history than the Amar Chitra Katha versions. Also similiar to TLM, but not as talked about, are Abraham Eraly's works on the Mughals. (The Last Spring, Emperor's of the Peacock Throne).

Qalandar | April 28, 2007

Re: Princely Impostor: Ever since I read this book I've had this fantasy of attending/teaching a course where this would be on the syllabus, along with The Return of Martin Guerre, and maybe even its H'wood remake Sommersby, and perhaps Paheli...

Qalandar | April 28, 2007

Red: as someone who himself is deprived of access to the wealth of material in Indian languages, I feel the loss keenly I must say. Glad you brought up Eraly (I think he's also written a book on ancient India that I haven't read yet): I did read Eraly's work on the Mughals last year when I was in India, and although he seems to rely almost exclusively on court/official histories and European traveller accounts, he is a very engaging writer indeed, and has a novelist's gift for memorably etching characters -- and it's great to see him do this vis-a-vis personages who aren't household names: such as Prince Akbar (Aurangzeb's son), his sister Zeb-un-Nissa, Mir Jumla, etc. I don't know how much his work has sold, but I saw it in many many bookshops in Delhi last year, so hopefully it's doing well...(though he does have this "angle" of holding the Mughals and the Maratthas "responsible" for not doing more to "make India ready" for the challenge of Western imperialism). Another book (sadly in need of a good editor) that was written by a non-professional historian, relies very much on "vernacular" sources, and was written for a popular audience in recent years, is G.S. Cheema's The Forgotten Mughals (1707-1857), which also (speaking of 1857) does a very good job of vividly describing the carnage unleashed in Delhi after the British retook the city, and also did a wonderful job describing the 1739 sack of the city by Nadir Shah. The writing style is very accessible (but somewhat clunky) but I do recommend it as there isn't much that is written on this subject...

C. M. Naim | April 28, 2007

I'm surprised that no one has yet commented on the following: "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." I find it hard to imagine an American who has no idea at all who the Mughals were. Likewise, I dare not imagine what comes to an 'average' American's mind when he/she sees/hears the word 'jihadi'. Except perhaps a highly insidious sense of 'continuity', of the 'permanence' of jihadis among Muslims. It may be a good strategy for the book's promotion—as readily and unabashedly acknowledged by Mr Dalrymple--but may also make life somewhat harder for a few of us who are paranoid enough already. That's why I was glad to read that inane review of the book in the NYTimes. It was so stupidly written that it failed to take up even the promotional bait, and thus make the book and the review timely for America and help in its sales. Let me, however, hasten to add that except for the above paragraph, I found nothing to kvetch about in WD's long response. It's a fine book, and it will last long after he stops promoting it.

Ajnabi | April 29, 2007

The learned CMN is being too kind but naive when he comments: "I find it hard to imagine an American who has no idea at all who the Mughals were"... I'll wager that one third of the US population will have a problem trying to figure out 'what' the term means. Another third would have understood better if WD had compared them to the Taliban rather than Jehadis, while the rest will relate to movie moguls -- and by logical extension, to Bollywood.

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

Ajnabi: but surely that is not the relevant sample? The relevant sample is that segment of the US population that is likely to buy/read a book on Indian history in my view -- and in THAT segment surely CMN is right that one would be hard-pressed to find someone who had no clue what "Mughal" refers to.

sepoy | April 29, 2007

Naim Sahib: THAT aspect of the selling of TLM is surely the most problematic thing - needing a full discussion instead of the academic/popular etc. that has been going on. SC: I think your reading there is way-off. WD cites many, many historians and histories and specifically recommends the readers of TLM to go seek those books and read them. Hardly, anti-intellectual intellectualism [is that something like the Straussians?]. And would the politics of difference you saw in that paragraph still exist if we substitute "Indian historians" with "British historians" or "American historians"? Nope. I don't know WD. I have only read 3 of his books. I have read some of his reviews/articles. But the sin you accuse him off - that racial bias against the Indians or some deliverer of Indian history to Indian masses etc. - is no where in evidence in any shape or form. Cuz, even if we seek hidden theories, we should do it with some evidence.

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

Re: "THAT aspect of the selling of TLM is surely the most problematic thing - needing a full discussion instead of the academic/popular etc. that has been going on." As one of the guiltiest parties on that front, I agree with you. However, let me say that one of the reasons I didn't wish to stress too much on that is that I felt this discussion was best about WD and his book -- not about the marketing of the book (especially because I have no way of knowing if WD is doing anything more egregious than anyone else), which I do conisder problematic but lack sufficient insight to determine whether the problem is WD-specific.

SC | April 29, 2007

I've in fact heard WD speak on several occasions, once most notably at a "literary conference" in which he blasted "Said and his silly book Orientalism". I don't think I am way off, extrapolating for sure, but not groundless.

Ajnabi | April 29, 2007

Q: With that microbe-sized 'relevant 'sample in mind, you are right. I read CMN to be refering to the collective US populance, Oklahoma inclusive. SC: For my own sanity, I pray that WD returns to this forum to clarify his alleged remark about “Said and his silly book Orientalism”. If he belives accordingly -- despite my great admiration of WDs body of excellent work , books, articles, et al -- I will be forced to do an anti-dixie chix thing and take all his books off my ikea shelf and rock them under the 16-inch wheels of my crv!

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

Ajnabi: c'mon yaar, yes it is microbe-sized but surely there's no way TLM makes the bestseller list right? I mean if CMN had been referring to the population in its entirety, then I would consider him naive (not just with respect to the US but any country). Consider: WD writes that his book has sold 40,000 copies in 5 months in India -- but India has 50-100 million people who can read English. Even if we arbitrarily slash that number by four-fifths , the % is still tiny, as it always is. Now consider a book on another country's history (one not seen to be directly implicated in one's "own" history), and I am sure those sales go down, way down (i.e. I imagine a biography of Queen Victoria would do better in India than one of Bismarck). Now in the US (but NOT in the UK), surely Indian history has fewer "consumers" than (obviously) say, of a biography of John Adams, or even of British history?

SC | April 29, 2007

For the sake of some evidence, here's a link to an interview of WD done in Bombay at some point, and some excerpts below. Granted, the questions he is being asked suck cuz they mark him as an "outsider" but his answers maintain that distinction, and they operate on generalizations about "Indians" and "British". Thus, let me clarify that I am not accusing WD of racism, I hardly think that is the case. However, I do think he has a "politics of identity" which relies on generalizations and the maintenance of difference between one group of people and another. So in most circumstances, he himself introduces his "goraness" into the conversation (though not in this interview). And my extrapolation is that Said's text doesn't sit well with him for some such reason. (I wholeheartedly believe there are many things wrong with Said's book, but I don't think WD has identified those things. In fact, at that conference, at which WD was promoting his book White Mughals, he went on to say that it is clear there was no identity politics involved such as what Said outlines, because as you can see, my book illustrates the intimate relations created between EIC and was something like this. Perhaps WD can come back on and clarify for himself. Here's the link: Excerpts: Q:What are the craziest queries fellow Brits have asked you about India, such as do Indians get to work on an elephant… WD: "In general, middle-class Brits know about India. It is a strange paradox: desis have an innate and well-founded suspicions of the Angrez, while the Angrez have a deep and passionate love of India." In response to another question, WD: "While Indian writers have virtually conquered the Indian market, they are so far less sophisticated in non-fiction. You have very fine journalists, but no great Indian biographers. I am very lucky to survive because it is quite a thing to come to a country and write their history." To all this I merely have to extend my deepest gratitude to WD, thank you so much for freeing my family from the realm of mythical history into pure empiricism. Got anything else my folks at home might need?

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

That was also I thought the strongest point Gyan Prakash made, that Dalrymple seems to take at face value "intimate connections" such as this or that Resident or other Englishman "going native", keeping harems and the like. And in fact that's what led us, on the other thread, to the whole "subalternist" discussion, because to take this sort of thing at face value means that one is simply discarding a whole discourse and scholarship that depends on NOT taking this sort of thing at face value (at that point the issue of the extent to which x or y school deserves to be ignored, because it is exclusionary/obscurantist/whatever took over the debate). I maintain that a historiography, whether or not popular, cannot just ignore important strands of scholarship without raising question marks about its credibility.

SC | April 29, 2007

Qalandar - I agree. Thus when WD claims he gives up theory for empiricism, I can't help but wonder what he means by that exactly. "Pure empiricism" does not produce better truths, as all readings of sources and evidence are laden with theoretically discussable methods (a discussion WD doesn't want to participate in). Thus to champion empiricism in place of theory seems to create a dichotomy which is not maintainable.... And now on to WD's historical work itself (cuz yes, he's a historian popular or otherwise). Both in White Mughals and in TLM Dalrymple approaches positivism in his reading of the sources. Thus even as he qualifies his use of the word "jihad" as an explanatory factor for 1857, he maintains its connection with current notions of jihad, something Sepoy was right on to flag. His basic argument in TLM is that all the "schools of professional history writing" have failed to note the overwhelming religious nature of 1857, which TLM now offers. Even here, I disagree with WD...though the reasons would be too long to write. Here's where we fall into his trap if we dismiss poco/subaltern st. because WD does so, while there are numerous things wrong with those schools, again I don't think WD has articulated them. He has just made it easier for many people to dismiss their interventions, thus I call him an anti-intellectual intellectual. In any case email me off list so that we can converse off the blogosphere. -Sheetal (

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

Thanks Sheetal: and it's worth adding that other historians have earlier stressed the religious nature of the conflict from the sepoy side (Rajat Kanta Ray), but they have also stressed the Hindu militantcy as well as the Muslim militantcy (indeed one of Ray's points is that prior to nationalism, the only "ground" for resistance was that of religion or "Hindustan", which latter is NOT a nationalism-in-the-making so much as it is a kind of "imperial patriotism" centered on the idea that the Mughal Emperor was the source of all political legitimacy).

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

PS-- to be fair to WD on that last point, perhaps he too has done the same, and I didn't mean to suggest that he hasn't merely, that to regard 1857 through a prism of Muslim militantcy isolated from any other religious militantcy risks falling prey to the notion of Islam as always already preordained towards militant zeal...

Red | April 29, 2007

Just a couple of stray thoughs, while I really enjoyed City of the Djinns, WD's Age of Kali made me very very uncomfortable. While witty and acerbic( the Benazir and Shobha De interviews had me in splits), his articles profiled the most exotic images of India. He discussion of Rup Kanwar's sati (20 years after it took place), Indian royalty, caste violence, erotic temple carvings, Bollywood, widows in Vrindavan, nostaligia about Portugese rule basically cover every single Indian "image" available in the West. Secondly, I fail to understand why British men keeping Indian mistresses and "wives" and going native, necessarily speaks of a begign or more fluid form of colonialism. Do relations with Southern plantaiton owners with Black slave women suggest a more begign form of slavery? There was no question of British women associating with Indian men in any way, even back in the early 19th century. In some ways, his "intimate connections" bears an uncomfortable resemblance to accounts of ICS officers in the 19th and 20th centuries saying that the natives loved them and treated them like "mai baap".

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

To be fair, Red, one might read the point as being that an ideology whereby native women could be taken as wives is different from, and perhaps better than, the sort of later 19th century ideology whereby racism was institutionalized and even biologized, and all mixing between the races -- of any sort -- was banished from the pale. And I guess to continue playing devil's advocate, books like the White Mughals seek to highlight situations precisely where the women in question HAD choices (unlike the slave plantation women) -- i.e. these were generally "well-born" women who in many/most cases had to ruffle quite a few feathers to marry/cohabit with the Englishman in question. [WD arguably remains open to critique for focusing on the marginal phenomenon to make a general point, given that he doesn't really address situations which would be more analogous to your slave plantation example.] The irony is that to the extent WD comes down harshly against the "racist Raj" in "favor" of a more ambiguous predecessor, and uses narratives of overlooked/"marginal" liaisons (in the White Mughals) to make his point, he owes more to the post-structuralists, the subalternists, and the Foucauldians than he perhaps realizes...

sepoy | April 29, 2007

While Indian historiography is theoretically sophisticated in many ways, the art of great narrative historiography written by Indians is all but dead. We depend upon the curiosities of foreigners to keep the story alive. One of the greatest storytelling nations has stopped producing stories about its own past, forgetting that ideological battles over history can never be a substitute for enticing narratives. William Dalrymple's masterly The Last Mughal subtly undercuts the significance of this event for Indians: its wonderful recovery of a time when nation state ideologies had not congealed our identities, also glosses over the hierarchies colonialism produced. 1857 has the power to move because, it is, above all else a darn good story. Too bad, there is simply no contemporary Indian narrative of the event of any power. But historical amnesia and indifference to the cause of liberty and self rule pose real dangers to a nation that has forgotten how to write its own history. If the indifference to the story of 1857 becomes a sign of indifference to India, we will be in deep trouble.
I don't agree with this editorial from Indian Express, Monday, April 30 2007, but since it touches on our discussion, I bring it to the table.

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

RE: "If the indifference to the story of 1857 becomes a sign of indifference to India, we will be in deep trouble." Perhaps the editor is also thinking of the fact that virtually all recent Hindi films that have been "historicals" or period pieces, have done rather poorly at the box office (some of them, such as Mangal Pandey, were actually very good IMO). Interesting for sure given that this year features the first Hindi film to go "Mughal" in decades -- Ashutosh Gowariker's "Jodha Akbar" (if media reports are to be believed, Irfan Habib is a creative consultant on this film, which is somewhat heartening). I think Hritik Roshan is seriously miscast as Akbar, but I like what they have done in this picture:

Qalandar | April 29, 2007

OK, utterly random aside #2: these lines grabbed my attention in the link SC put up: "He stopped reading fiction long ago. “When history is so remarkable so extraordinary, why read something made-up? Truth has a resonance fiction can't because it is ultimately someone's fantasy,” he says." I just find that shocking, I must say.

SC | April 30, 2007

Strange lines by WD indeed. I don't know what to make of the Indian Express section, I find that strange as well. Strangeness abounds...

Global Voices Online Pakistan: Dalrymple’s Last Mughal | May 02, 2007

[...] chapati mystery has a post with a response to a review, and a wonderful discussion follows. “Dalrymple posits a connection between the mythmaking that passes for history in the subcontinent and the absence of credible “popular” histories. To a certain extent I absolutely agree with him, which is why I am glad that there are signs that things are changing (Dalrymple being the most prominent example). But surely there's more here?” Share This [...]

Red | May 05, 2007

Just found an interesting review of Dalrymple's Outlook essay on the same subject

Rajendra Asthana | November 29, 2009 Dalrymple's defence of his book by citing that 40000 hard-back copies were sold in India, he would do well to find, how-many were bought by individuals, and how many copies were read from page 1 to last page. Did Dalrymple not mention that Prof. Irfan Habib had not read his book and he ( Dalrymple) had sent him a copy. If Prof.Irfan Habib had not read Dalrymple's book ( as claimed by Dalrymple) it goes to prove that Dalrymple has not written History but a Roman(Novel).Obviously Novelists do play around with facts, as Dalrymple has done by dubbing genuine uprising of all Bashindas of Hindustan against John Company, as a fundamentalist Jihad. Nothing can be farther from truth. What Dalrymple wrote is a novel not history. Western Universities might have given him Honoris causa D.Litts for history, but these are as bizarre as Nobel Committee givng Nobel peace prize to U.S. president when the Nobel nomination closure date preceded the inauguration of the President of U.S. So much for Western sense of probity and justice. 1857 was a response to rapacity, intolerance, amoral actions, and attack on religious beliefs of native Indians by John Company. Dalrymple claims to have based his book on research conducted on 1857 documents available in Indian archives. Tarry a little, Dalrymple is not proficient either in Urdu or Persian. So he depended on translators paid for by him. The cue is obvious. Dalrymple is advised to go through "1857 India'a war for Independence" by V.D.Savarkar. Savarkar went through original records of East India Company and British Government available in India House London during 1905 to 1907. The book was banned and was one of the charges framed against Savarkar when he was awarded 50 years transportation for life by the British Judges. Dalrymple must read Delhi portion of this book. Incidentally the tallest leader, that emerges out of 1857, is Maulvi Ahmed Ali of Fyzabad, who by no stretch of imagination can be dubbed as a Jihadist. Coming from Savarkar, who is dubbed as rabid Hindu fundamentalist by India's secular establishment and academics, it would be a revelation to Dalrymple and his ilk.