Some Indian History

Last fall my friend Soma lent me two books: The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple and The Glass Palace by Amitva Ghosh. It was only around the Holidays that I finally got around to reading both books.

The Last Mughal is nonfiction. The Glass Palace is a novel.

Before I read them, my knowledge of Indian history consisted of what I vaguely remember from having seen the movie Gandhi when I was about 12 years old. So I was in for quite the education. Each book tells a very different but engaging story. Together, they provided me with an excellent lesson in Indian history.

By chance I read The Last Mughal first. Dalrymple tells the story of the 1857 Delhi Uprising/Rebellion (depending on your perspective) and of  Zafar the last Mughal Emperor.

Dalrymple shows how the uprising wasn’t an organized uprising at all. It was disparate, mutually-distrustful, groups who were angry with the British that only coalesced around Zafar because they needed a leader. At the time of the uprising Zafar was in his 80’s and a figurehead, whose power was limited to the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi where he still “ruled.” He was a reluctant and indecisive leader of the uprising having been drafted to the task by various leaders.

Though it is fact-heavy, Dalrymple’s account never feels like a mere listing of people and events, as some histories often do. He documents the personalities on both sides, providing plenty of historical context for them and their actions.

It was Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, who rebelled against British control. But it was also Indians, mainly those from Punjab, who beat back the uprising. Apparently, the Sikhs were still angry that the Mughals had martyred two of their leaders over 200 years before. The British, far outnumbered by the native population, exploited the divides already on the Indian subcontinent to their advantage. I knew this is what the British did, but I hadn’t known exactly how it was practiced.

After the uprising was beaten down and many of its participants and instigators killed, Zafar was put on trial, convicted, and sent to live in exile in Rangoon where he died.

I’m glad I read The Last Mughal first because there are many casual references to the Delhi Uprising in The Glass Palace. This made it possible for me to understand some of the references by the narrator and some of the characters to the Uprising such as, “passing around chapatis” and Zafar’s exile in Rangoon.

Starting in Burma, going to India, back to Burma, and on to Malaysia, to Kolkata, Inida, and ending in Burma in the 1990’s, Amitav Ghosh’s story in The Glass Palace is epic. I had no idea just how entangled the histories of India, Burma, and Malaysia were thanks to their British rulers. In addition to ruling the three territories, the British imported Indians into Burma to work in the teak business and Malaysia to work on the rubber plantations.

Ghosh begins with the infatuation that a boy has for girl who is a servant of the Queen of Burma. As the story begins the Burmese monarchy is defeated and King Thebaw, his wife and children are captured and sent to live in exile on the west coast of India. (Yes, the British sent the last Mughal King to live in exile in Burma and sent the last Burmese King to live in exile in India.)

Ghosh’s story loosely follows the boy (Rajkumar) and girl (Dolly) as they grow up, finally meet again as adults, start a family, thrive, struggle to survive during World War II, and their offspring make their way to the end of the 20th century. Ghosh’s strength, and why he’s able to pull off such a multifaceted story, is that he is able to describe the panorama of history just as skillfully as he is the individual struggles of a person caught in an unfulfilling marriage or stuck in the wild churn of history.

Reading The Glass Palace made me want to read more books by Amitav Ghosh.

Reading both books made me want to learn more about India. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even get a chance to visit India.

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3 thoughts on “Some Indian History

  1. Rich –
    I read “Shantaram” a couple of years ago. It takes place in Mumbai and made me want to visit India, also. It’s a long novel, takes place around the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I understand that Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe vied for the movie rights and Depp won. (The anti-hero is an Aussie.) Around that same time, “Slumdog Millionaire” came out. I was amazed at how well the author of Shantaram had described the slums of Mumbai. The back story is interesting, too. I’ll look at Ghosh. Maybe my international fiction book club would like it?

    • Susan,

      I’ll look up “Shantaram.” Right now I’m in the middle of “Don Quixote.”

      You also might like Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games.” It’s a big novel that is set in and all about Mumbai, from the cops, to the gangsters, to Bollywood. It even has a large glossary of all the Indian slang that’s used in the story. I was enthralled with that book and want to read it again.

  2. I’d like to borrow as I just read White Tiger and want to read more and learn more about India.

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