Review: White Mughals [William Dalrymple]

Author: William Dalrymple

Originally Published: 2002 

Language: English

Genre: History, Narrative, Indian History

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: No spoilers here! Happy reading!

The stories we tell people about ourselves are called anecdotes or experiences. The moment the stories move back to a time we no longer belong to, it’s called history. It is made out to be distant and ancient; it is considered extremely important without anyone telling us why that is so.

My relationship with history has been rough, simply because there was too much pressure associated with it. As a student, you had to memorise dates and events, you had to know historical facts like you had lived through them and you had to make history repeat itself in the answers you wrote during examinations. I dreaded history because it felt foreign. It never felt like I was reading, or rather studying, something that was relevant to me. I have a good memory and I can commit dates, events and people to memory, but I would rather do it with a purpose in mind. History as a subject lacked that quality – purpose.

During my years at college, we had the Introduction to a book as a part of our syllabus, just the Introduction, and I thought it was quite bizarre. As far as I recall it, the purpose there was to help us understand Formalism, but it was still out of the ordinary to just have a teaser as a text. I read that text over and over and the more I read, the more I cared about what was written there.

The Introduction that I fell in love with was from White Mughals by William Dalrymple. You must have guessed that, right? I was just playing a game of stating the obvious. Humour me, Dreamers!

Up until I graduated, I had never looked at the book in its entirety. I just knew the Introduction and I knew I had to read the book someday. My curiosity arose from the fact that the story was set in Hyderabad, the city I live in. The fact that something scandalous had taken place more than 200 years ago in places I frequented was fascinating! I was sharing space with stories I couldn’t see and that’s magical in some way. It’s time travel through a stationery space.

White Mughals captures a romance that blended cultural, political and religious spaces, considered taboo in eighteenth-century India. James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a British Resident in Hyderabad, fell in love with Khair un-Nissa, a Muslim Indian princess and the great-niece of the Nizam’s Prime Minister, in the late eighteenth century.

That’s about as much of the story as you are going to get from this review. If that isn’t intriguing enough, read the blurb on the back of the book, take a peek at the Introduction while you contemplate purchasing it and to add to that, here’s why I recommend White Mughals to any human with a remote interest in reading:

  1. To witness sheer effort in terms of research and writing. Rummaging through archives, letters and documents, travelling to places seeking out a story and being able to write a book that justifies its length is a result of absolute and determined effort. You need to LOVE what you do in order to be able to do it in a way that draws people into it. I, a history-hating, fact-fearing, politically-pathetic human, was able to enjoy a historical narrative solely because of Dalrymple’s display of effortless effort. That’s smooth.
  2. To challenge yourself to try to read a book that may seem like it’s beyond your scope of reading. In my year of non-fiction, I realised that in the simplest sense, non-fiction is a real story; it’s a narration of experiences that exist in a particular time and space. 550 pages, including the Glossary and Notes, may seem like a brick just hit your face, but take it one chapter at a time and you will overcome the fear of trying something new or different. Length in a book doesn’t always equate to a voice droning on or intricate details that are meant for decoration; some stories deserve that length in a book and that space on a shelf and White Mughals is one of them.
  3. To understand that differences exist within cultures as well. There were rules for Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa, rules that applied to their families and contemporaries, too, but they had their own reservations against the cultures they grew up within. The whole idea of cultures blending is evident in the title itself and it is real, no matter how much people choose to believe that they are pure in their cultural composition. This story is relevant 200 years later, for cultures are blending to give birth to new ones as I write this.
  4. To revisit and/or befriend history on the whole. I can’t believe that I have transformed, even now. I have failed in history as far as I can remember and it was a pain. Like I said, history as a subject lacked purpose, and now, history as a genre has opened up so many options for me to read and explore. Historical narrative as a part of Dalrymple’s style drew me into reading history like the story it actually is. It’s real. These events took place. They took place in the very city I live in and that was a lovely way to take a step towards finding a purpose in history.
  5. To be inspired to explore space and time, whether that is your own or someone else’s. Ever since I started visiting forts, I started having a certain feeling of curiosity when I walk into a new space. I wonder what could have possibly taken place in the same spot as I am standing then, I wonder about how many people take a sip of water simultaneously all over the world, I wonder about what colour the walls were before they were painted the colour I can see, and it goes on and on. What if we asked the same questions about the cities and countries we inhabit? It wouldn’t be a new thought, but we would be participating and contributing to history. Dalrymple escorts you through the spaces that were inhabited by noblemen and officials, all the while presenting the transformation and loss of these spaces over the years as well. He takes you through the door to the past and opens up a window to the present, and I loved those transitions in the book.

You won’t require these reasons if you know and follow Dalrymple’s work. I know now, and I seek his books out regardless of the topic or setting. There are certain authors that are able to convey their passion for their subjects through their writing styles and he is definitely one of them. It’s a quality I wish to imbibe when time comes for me to publish my writing.

If you’re a slow reader, don’t panic, just take it like a marathon and pace your reading. If you’re a fast reader, take a few breaks to recapitulate what you have read and go back and forth, if you have to, in order to experience the effect of the book.

Happy Reading!


Dear Mr Dalrymple,

If you’re reading this, thank you for writing and sharing what you know best. The element of calm and quiet in your books are like the moments when you stop the car, on your journey to somewhere, to walk through an empty field and you can hear every little sound around you, as well as the thoughts in your mind.

Yours sincerely,

Nandika.

A Year of Non-Fiction (2016-17) Book Reviews Series :

DreamingAtMyDesk View All →

Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!

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