Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A familiar tune

I'm almost done reading William Darymple's The Last Mughal , a history of the city of Delhi in 1857, during the tragically self-defeating mutiny against the British East India Company by its native soldiers. Having not read much at all about the place or the period, I can't say much about the accuracy of Darymple's account, but damn, the man can write. If this book were a Hollywood movie, it could easily be a blockbuster.

(To those to whom I have promised to read other books, I'm sorry, but this recommendation came from a source I couldn't refuse).

Central to Darymple's narrative is the tragic figure of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the title character, who by the end of the book is locked up in the dungeon of his own palace, and put on trial by the British for masterminding a rebellion that he never wanted. His prosecutors alleged that Zafar, a syncretic Sufi Muslim emperor who participated - and believed in - Hindu rituals and festivals, was a participant in a vast conspiracy stretching from Turkey through Persia and into India to unseat the enlightened British Empire. To quote the chief prosecutor:

"The known restless spirit of Mahommedan fanaticism has been the first aggressor, the vindictive intolerance of that peculiar faith has been struggling for mastery, seditious conspiracy has been its means, the prisoner [Zafar] its active accomplice, and every possible crime its frightful result . . . The bitter zeal of Mahommedanism meets us everywhere . . . perfectly demonic in its actions. . . "
As Darymple points out, however, 65-85% of the rebel army that joined the soldiers who first rushed into Zafar's pristine audience hall with their horses and muddy boots were, in fact, Hindus.

To English people who didn't know any better, however, the idea of a global Muslim conspiracy directed against them seemed appealing.

The words change, but not the tune.

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