For the last 17 years, William Dalrymple's travel and history books have celebrated syncretism. Nothing pleases him more than the “fluidity” and “tolerance” displayed by such champion integrators as Sir David Ochterlony, who processed around 19th-century Delhi each evening with his 13 Indian wives, each on the back of her own lavishly caparisoned elephant. The roots of violently polarized religions and cultures, Dalrymple is famous for arguing, are surprisingly entwined: al-Qaeda and the evangelical neocons are branches of the same spreading tree. But cheerleaders for pluralism have a thin time of it these days.
Dalrymple's works are elegies for tolerance: tales of things falling apart, splintering communities and growing religious fundamentalism. The Last Mughal, which traces the brutal destruction of Bahadur Shah Zafar II's Delhi court in the Indian uprising of 1857-8, shows this process — a falling-off from the late-18th century heyday of liberal coexistence described in its predecessor, White Mughals — in fast-forward.
Delhi in the 1850s was home to the last vestige of the once-sprawling Mughal empire: a refined but ineffectual court presided over by an emperor whose authority barely ran beyond the palace walls. Hemmed in by growing British influence, the emperor and upper-class Delhi residents spent their time designing gardens, visiting Sufi shrines, “enjoying the moonlight” and competing to write the most beautiful ghazals, or Urdu love poems. Tolerance flourished; Delhi's half-Hindu, half-Muslim population lived peacefully side by side.
An unashamed fan of Sufism, Dalrymple is impressed by the declining court's “tolerant Sufi ways” and by its poet-emperor, the most “talented, tolerant and likeable” of his dynasty. But it is difficult to share his straightforward delight in a culture that sprang from impoverishment and political emasculation. By 1857, the 82-year-old Zafar's ghazal contests and state processions amounted to little more than gilding the bars of his British-made cage.
Zafar's oasis of mangoes and theological debate was, admittedly, more attractive than the forces surrounding it. Dalrymple argues convincingly for the contribution of colonialism to the rise of religious radicalism in India. As the British administration became increasingly bigoted and its evangelical missionaries more aggressive, the East India Company's Hindu sepoys became preoccupied by caste and ritual, while their Muslim counterparts were drawn to the militant new Wahhabi ideology spreading from Saudi Arabia.
Caught between resurgent religious radicalism and a violent tussle for political and economic control, Zafar's court had little chance of survival once the sepoys made him the reluctant figurehead of their resistance. The bulk of The Last Mughal is an account of Delhi during the uprising: a breakneck yarn of disguise, escape, spies, collaborators, strategic errors, venality, deception, love affairs and spectacular brutality. Dalrymple proves a sure-footed narrator who only occasionally succumbs to melodrama and skillfully paces the crescendo of the conflict towards the final siege, fall and destruction of the rebel city.
The real villains of The Last Mughal are the brutal, narrow-minded British military and civil administrators. When they insist the elderly emperor is “the evil genius and linchpin behind an international Muslim conspiracy,” the parallels Dalrymple draws between the sack of Delhi and recent Western misadventures in the Middle East suddenly come alive. Like their counterparts in the Green Zone, the victors are ostentatiously righteous (celebrating the fact that Zafar's throne room, which “once echoed to the mandates of a despotic emperor ... now echoed the peaceful prayers of a Christian people”) and legally bankrupt. Show trials of the imperial family, which invariably resulted in the death sentence, were a legal nonsense, as the company still owed Zafar the allegiance it had sworn his family in the 18th century.