The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, died in Burma in 1862 who lived his earlier years in culturally sophisticated court, but as the East India Company extended its control, his rule ended. The mutiny of the sepoys led to the siege of Delhi, the establishment of direct British colonial rule and ended pretensions of Zafar as emperor. William Author William Dalrymple has mined the Persian and Urdu documentation to capture the culture of Zafar’s court life of artists and intellectuals, Muslims and non-Muslims.
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 is larger in and intense in the backdrop of a defining period in India’s struggle with the British Empire. It is the last, gasping evening of the Mughal dynasty, and the emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, who is known to be a “reserved and rather beautiful old man with a fine aquiline nose and a carefully trimmed beard” in easy words a chessboard king. He was a melancholic octogenarian whose power didn’t extend beyond the Red Fort. In one of his own ghazals he wrote: I want to shatter the bars of my cage, /With the flutterings of my wings. /But like a caged bird in a painting, /There is no possibility of being free.
The city began to fall apart on May 11, 1857, when the mutinous sepoys from Meerut entered Delhi. The greased cartridges were not the only aggravation for the Uprising, which was quite material in the beginning. Zafar, showing signs of senility and known for his royal irresolution as the “Emperor of Hindustan”, authorized the insurgence. Ghalib mentions “The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.” Soon it was jihad, and from the city’s mosques, the mujahideen and the maulvis declared war on the infidels.
William Dalrymple brings an Indian perspective to the narrative of 1857, courtesy – the Mutiny Papers, still conserved in the National Archives of India. For the author Zafar had to be celebrated, argues his redeemer, not for his heroism but for his symbolism. “He was a protector of the Hindus and the moderator of Muslim demands.”
While romancing Zafar the liberal, author blames the historical violence of the West for the Islamist fury. The histories of imperialism and jihad are intertwined. That is perhaps the simplest-and the most obvious- way to neutralise the terror of Islamism. William Dalrymple is a historian who had spent an extensive time in the scented great yesterdays of the Orient. In this book he tells us a story in which the richness of its humanism is matched by the sheer size of it follies. History closes down to be a dead generalization on his pages. And the lost Delhi becomes a continuing fascination.