8 comments on “Delving Into Dalrymple (The Last Mughal and, especially, White Mughals)

  1. I read your reviews with interest, Richard – because, considering I write historical fiction myself and my sister is a historian, people always assume I’ve read both these books. The only book of Dalrymple’s that I’ve read is the Delhi travelogue, City of Djinns, which I liked a lot. Why I’ve not read these two books is more because I know something of the back story here… not pleasant.

  2. Richard,
    Nice to see you delving into book reviews. I also had the same feeling about ‘The Last Mughal’: too much detail about the uprising and atrocities. One would have more enjoyed if he had devoted more space to the Mughals’ indulgences, poetry, Ghalib, Zauq etc. I had similar feelings of something wanting when I tried to read Martin Gilbert’s History of the Second World War, which was almost entirely about operations, strategies on the battlefield, and very little about politics, ambitions, jealousies and treacheries.

    Dalrymple would probably not be described as a ‘historian’ in India. I would say one of the best writers on Indian history today is Ramchandra Guha. He is a historian and also a ‘writer’, and what should interest you, he is an environmentalist and a left-leaning liberal.

    ‘White Mughals’ seems to be more readable. That reminds me I have been amiss in not getting down to it.

    If I can give you a gratuitous recommendation, a very well-known book which takes a romanticised view of the Raj, specifically the contributions of the men who joined civil service under the East India Company, and later the Crown, is Philip Mason’s ‘The Men Who Ruled India’.


  3. Madhu, you assumed right in my case. I was curious about your take on these books. It’s not just that you write historical fiction and your sister is a historian… It’s that you write about a Mughal detective and your sister wrote a book about Chandni Chowk. That makes for a lot of common ground with Dalrymple, who probably also mainly lives in Dehli these days. I even wondered if one of you might have consulted with him sometime or even hung out with him. :)

    And yes, of course, the back story is not pleasant. In The Last Mughal, Dalrymple seemed to enjoy describing unpleasantness pretty explicitly for hundreds of pages. :) I think White Mughals mixes the depressing aspects with something interestingly positive (even though the main subjects did not fare well by the end of the book), because one of his main points in this book is that the British meeting Indians or East-meets-West in general was not always a case of conflict, conquest, and war (hence his argument with the assumptions in Edward Said’s book).

    I will have to read City of Djinns sometime.

  4. AK, I was happy to see that you had the same feeling about Last Mughals. Some people have said it was a fantastic book (and the quotes on the front cover, from the New York Review of Books, say its a “masterpiece”) :) The writing is very good and it’s superbly researched, but it was actually a bit disappointing to me for the reasons that we’re talking about. Maybe when you get to White Mughals, you will prefer that one too.

    I haven’t read Martin Gilbert’s Second World War, but I imagine that it would be – to borrow a phrase from Madhulika – “not pleasant.”

    I am not sure I understand why Dalrymple would not be described as historian in India. He certainly seems to qualify as one form what I know. In any event, to be honest, I am happy to read a well written and well researched history whether or not the writer meets some standard for being called a historian.

    I will look into Ramchandra Guha. I think most histories I encounter are by left-leaning liberals. Certainly, Dalrymple is one, no? Yes, I probably can find more to agree on with people who are that way than with most others… Though I don’t consider myself just left-leaning and not really a liberal (as I know them). I fell all the way into left a long time ago :) , though in very particular ways.

    Philip Mason’s The Men Who Ruled India looks interesting. Certainly, I would be happy to read about that subject from a perspective that I don’t see as much these days. I don’t have to entirely agree with it personally. :)

    Anyway, I’m glad to see that you liked seeing me delve into book reviews… I’ve done a few in this blog, though I tend to blend them into a more rambling sort of post and not announce at the top, “This is a book review of [so and so]” the way Iv’e done here. I mentioned one prior review in the post above (and linked to it).

    I don’t know if you ever saw my post of November 2016 where I reviewed a few books that I’d gotten from New York’s Library of the Performing Arts:


    One book I reviewed there is Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor by Priya Srinivasan. The book is pretty well described by it’s title. I would call it a fascinating social history (though I think it gets thrown in with “cultural studies”). I think it goes hard left at times, applying Marxist economic analysis but within a framework that includes an eclectic range of other sources too. Most recently, I’ve thought about the references in this book to different immigration laws that were passed in the U.S. during the 20th century, designed specifically to exclude certain people, then re-include them, then exclude other people, etc. That is a subject that is being pushed into a lot of people’s minds in the U.S. right now because of very unpleasant things that are happening.

    The book also actually contains a lot of good information about classical Indian dance!

    Anyway, maybe that was a gratuitous tangent :) but the book has gotten back into my mind lately.

    I hope other people want to see more book reviews here also, because I have been leaning more in that direction for a while.

    [P.S. Quickly edited something out of this comment because I decided not to go into it now, and to make this a little shorter. :) ]

  5. Richard,
    Thanks for mentioning ‘Sweating Saris’ and link to your post on your book reviews. Have you written its detailed review?

  6. Richard, my sister does know Dalrymple – he was also in conversation with her at one of the book events for the release of her Chandni Chowk book.

    The unpleasantness I was referring to was not about the books or their subjects but something else. Will send you a mail. :-)

  7. AK, thank you for asking, but… No, I never got around to the more full review that I promised. I just looked back at this post, and I had forgotten that I mentioned a longer review multiple times. Maybe I should edit this. :)

    I think this is a pretty full review as it stands… I did describe the book fairly fully and the reasons that I liked it. I think the only thing I was really not satisfied with was that I did not find a good way to fit in quotes of favorite passages. (At least I could not do that during time that I had to write up the book. I don’t recall whether this deadline was a result of my desire to get the blog post up at a certain point or a need to return the book to the library after renewing it so many times. :) I should buy a copy somewhere, since I like it more than a lot of books that I own! But I can always borrow it from the same library again and there might be a way to download a pdf from somewhere online. I know there are places to find free pdfs of the introduction and excerpts – maybe I will look into that more and post some sometime.)

  8. Madhu, so I was right – at least with regard to your sister. I also wondered if a closer or more “inside” association with Dalrymple might not have necessarily been a totally positive thing. :) Maybe I was onto something. If the “back story” that you referred to wasn’t a reference to the history that he was writing about but something, else, that is very curious. I am looking forward to receiving your e-mail and seeing the answer to the mystery that you just introduced. :)

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