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the Complete Review
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White Mughals

William Dalrymple

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To purchase White Mughals

Title: White Mughals
Author: William Dalrymple
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 395 pages
Availability: White Mughals - US
White Mughals - UK
White Mughals - Canada
Le Moghol blanc - France
  • Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India
  • With numerous illustrations, maps, and family trees

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, detailed story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 28/9/2002 Philip Ziegler
Evening Standard . 11/10/2002 Selina Hastings
Evening Standard . 30/10/2002 Edward Marriott
The Guardian . 5/10/2002 Pankaj Mishra
Hindustan Times . 5/12/2002 Suman Tarafdar
The Independent . 12/10/2002 Toby Green
The LA Times . 13/7/2003 Sunil Khilnani
The New Yorker . 19/5/2003 .
The Spectator . 12/10/2002 Lee Langley
The Sunday Tribune A 1/12/2002 Rajnish Wattas
The Telegraph . 3/1/2003 Lakshmi Subramanian
Times Higher Ed. Supp. . 28/2/2003 Gordon Johnson
TLS A 11/10/2002 Francis Robinson

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Enthralling though this story is, and well though Dalrymple tells it, it is only a peg on which he hangs the more substantial theme of the cultural and social encounter between Britain and India. (...) Dalrymple paints a vivid picture of Hyderabad in the late 18th century and his narrative overflows with detail, which may sometimes be of doubtful relevance but is always marvellously entertaining." - Philip Ziegler, Daily Telegraph

  • "Impressively researched and written with vigour and panache, the book gives a detailed portrait of Hyderabad and of the court of the Nizam, with its sophisticated society and complex power structures, its literature, music and architecture. Although occasionally the reader suffers from information overload, Dalrymple is a gifted narrator and brings vividly to life the diplomatic dealings between the Indian princes and the East India Company, as well as the battles and internecine rivalry between the Company and its mortal enemy, the French." - Selina Hastings, Evening Standard

  • "Dalrymple, after a successful career as travel writer and essayist, has now demonstrated himself a master historian. However, where he attempts to inject novelistic pace into the narrative (...) he is on shakier ground." - Edward Marriott, Evening Standard

  • "White Mughals marks a fruitful break from a genre that seems increasingly an inadequate tool to understand a world growing ever more complex. The past becomes much more than an architectural curiosity, as Dalrymple attempts in this technically ambitious book the difficult job of carving a human narrative out of the intransigent mass of untouched archival material: the letters of Kirkpatrick and other British officials, the Persian chronicles of the time. There is a scholarly seriousness here; also, a moral passion." - Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian

  • "Remarkably well researched, the book is part of a fairly new genre of writing -- narrative history. (...) Beware, this is may be an engrossing read, but not fast. The footnotes and endnotes, exhaustive and informative in themselves, can slow down reading considerably." - Suman Tarafdar, Hindustan Times

  • "White Mughals is a thought-provoking work, distinguished by Dalrymple's erudition. (...) Like many ground-breaking works, White Mughals poses as many questions as it solves." - Toby Green, The Independent

  • "Dalrymple, a renowned travel writer, has labored intrepidly in the archives, and there is much to admire in this book, which exudes his affection for India and a fascination with human character. But the narrative shape of White Mughals too often collapses in the face of his determination to display all that he has learned. Dalrymple has achieved in this inordinately digressive book a quality I had previously thought unique to the Bollywood film: the ability to be at once breathless and long-winded." - Sunil Khilnani, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Dalrymple has emerged not only with a gripping tale of politics and power but also with evidence of the surprising extent of cultural exchange in pre-Victorian India, before the arrogance of empire set in." - The New Yorker

  • "Fortunately, the reading room fustian is brilliantly offset by Dalrymple’s vivid evocation of place (.....) The book chronicles the lives of several cross-cultural couples, but the promised romance is often buried under a mountain of historical minutiae. The personal stories are not always easy to follow through 500 pages, the experience at times like swimming against the breakers in the Bay of Bengal: exhilarating for a while, but it can be exhausting." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "The book brings to life evocative pictures of harem politics, court intrigues and the social-political milieu of Hyderabad of yore, and also the workings of the John Company’s Machiavellian tactics. Flavours and fragrances of the city’s bazaars and of the zennanas of the nobles waft through the narrative." - Rajnish Wattas, The Sunday Tribune

  • "The story itself is simple and well-told -- the context is complex and well-researched. And precisely because of this, it has been described as non-fiction, in the sense that it lays claims to the contiguous territories of fact and fiction. Dalrymple’s imagination is fully at work even as it balances the plethora of facts that he has unearthed and discovered in the treasure troves of British libraries. In so far as these support his story and facilitate its unfolding, these details are delightful, but very often these assume a larger than life proportion and interrupt the narrative." - Lakshmi Subramanian, The Telegraph

  • "Through massive research blessed with serendipity, and through imagination and empathy, Dalrymple has evoked the world of the British in late eighteenth century India as no one has before. He is sometimes self-indulgent, when he cannot bring himself to prune facts he has compiled on a religious ceremony or on abortion. But this does not mar a wonderful book, its story of love or its celebration of the humanity we share." - Francis Robinson , Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In White Mughals William Dalrymple tells the story of a British Resident in Hyderabad, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, around 1800. Kirkpatrick went native to an extent that didn't please his superiors, and by focussing on him and his Indian wife, Khair un-Nissa, Dalrymple offers a sweeping look at the India of the day and the complex interaction of cultures (Muslim, Hindu, and British) there.
       Dalrymple offers a detailed history, setting the scene in India ca. 1800, with its mix of British, Mughal, and Hindu influence and power struggles. He is particularly good on the mixing of cultures, already common in Mughal times, where Islam and Hinduism co-existed. British influence in India eventually became very widespread, but one forgets that there were actually relatively few British citizens on the sub-continent -- and many in the farther reaches (as even Hyderabad was) were to able act, in many respects (especially regarding their personal lives), fairly independently of the central authorities. Taking a local woman as a mistress was very common, and even conversion to Islam was not unheard of (and had long been a problem of sorts for the British: "in 1606 even the English Consul in Egypt, Benjamin Bishop, converted").
       Dalrymple offers a general introduction to the India of the times, and then focusses on Kirkpatrick's story. Kirkpatrick's brother, William, was Resident in Hyderabad first, but had to resign and his brother James, rising fairly fast through the ranks, became Acting Resident there in 1797. The love story between him and Khair un-Nissa is an unusual one, not only because it was unusual for an Englishman to marry a local girl, but because she came from a prominent Muslim family which practiced endogamy and where it was similarly unthinkable for her to take a man such as Kirkpatrick as a husband. But his conversion to I(and presumably the belief that the locally powerful Kirkpatrick was otherwise a fairly good catch) was sufficient to overcome the concerns of her family.
       The British authorities were less thrilled by Kirkpatrick's doings -- not that they were exactly clear on what he was always up to (or what he had done), despite many rumours floating around, and a number of inquiries. But, as Dalrymple shows, this wasn't an isolated case of going native.
       White Mughals is a detail-filled book, with Dalrymple painstakingly reconstructing events and quoting extensively. All the more surprising then when the trail finally runs cold -- "And then, quite suddenly, nothing." Still, the story doesn't end with Kirkpatrick's early death, as Dalrymple continues to follow the trail of what happened to Khair un-Nissa and their two children.
       Dalrymple offers an impressive, if occasionally overwhelming book, rich with the details of life at an historic time. Much is fascinating, and often amusingly presented, from Edward Strachey and Mountstuart Elphinstone travelling with an elephant "reserved entirely for carrying their books" to footnotes wondering about the temperature at which tar is to be applied for use as a contraceptive ("one presumes that if applied hot it would make a very effective contraceptive indeed"). The book is densely populated with an often odd and entertaining cast of characters -- and, of course, there was history here too in the making, much of this the seed of the 19th-century transformation of India under British rule.
       It can all be a bit much -- White Mughals is a dense, well-researched book of history rather than a breezy account of sensational goings on -- but with truth often stranger than fiction there's enough here to generally keep one interested. It does offer an often fascinating picture of India in the throes of change, and of how those who were there acted and reacted.

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White Mughals: Reviews: William Dalrymple: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of literature from and about India at the complete review
  • See also the Index of Biography under review

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About the Author:

       William Dalrymple has written several books about India.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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