Love and war are usually thought to inhabit different spheres and, except in Tolstoy, we do not expect them to mix. As Sir Walter Scott’ s couplet puts it: “Dreams of love and lady’s charms / give place to honour and to arms.” Part of the achievement ofthis magnificent book is the way William Dalrymple effortlessly melds the two motifs so that the public story of the British conquest of India and the poignant tale of a love affair interpenetrate, with each adding a dimension to the other.
In 1797 there were four major powers in India: the Marathas in the north and west, Tipu Sultan in the south, the Nizam of Hyderabad in the centre and the British East India Company in the east, controlling the coastline from Madras to Calcutta. TheCompany’s new Governor-General Richard Wellesley was determined to destroy his three rivals as part of a personal project to make the British the masters of all India. Using the military talent of his brother Arthur (later duke of Wellington), Wellesleyfirst destroyed Tipu at Seringapatam, then prepared for his second stage, war against the Marathas.
As for the princely state of Hyderabad, which had been heavily defeated by Tipu in 1795, Wellesley reckoned he could geld it by machiavellian diplomacy.For this reason a key figure at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad was the British Resident. In 1797 this was the 33-year-old James Achilles Kirkpatrick.
Where Wellesley was a man who had all the attitudes of the post-1857 Raj – racism, contempt for the “natives”, sexual anxieties about miscegenation and the purity of white memsahibs – Kirkpatrick harked back to an earlier 18th-century tradition ofcrossing cultures. He loved India and its people and in effect “went native” as part of a long and honourable tradition that Dalrymple carefully sketches. His sympathies were indeed more with Hyderabad (whose elderly ruler loved him like a son) than” John Company”, and Dalrymple speculates, plausibly, that he may have been a double agent or even put Hyderabad’s interest before that of Wellesley. It was not entirely surprising, then, that he fell in love with an Indian girl of oligarchic family(Dalrymple dislikes the word “princess”), Khair Un-Nissa, great niece of the Nizam’s prime minister, and she with him. Kirkpatrick wanted to marry her, but the obstacles were formidable.
The girl’s family claimed descent from the Prophet and belonged tothe endogamous Sayyed sect of Indian Muslims, for whom marriage outside the clan was the ultimate horror. Even though Khair was already promised to another man in an arranged marriage, her mother and the rest of the women in the family colluded topromote the liaison with the unbeliever. When she became pregnant, Khair’s grandfather and patriarch of the clan claimed that the Sayyed honour had been besmirched and that he would have to take to the roads as a wandering fakir. But Khair’s mother wasconvinced that Hyderabad was in danger and that only alliance with the British could save it; their daughter’ s marriage to the Resident would make the family supreme in the state once Wellesley’s plans were complete. Kirkpatrick saved the day byconverting to Islam and even having himself circumcised. A formal but secret marriage was concluded.
But the byzantine intrigues at the Nizam’s court meant that Kirkpatrick had many enemies, both those who favoured an alliance with the French and those who, for personal reasons, wished to discredit Kirkpatrick with Wellesley. It is worth rememberingthat Kirkpatrick’s affair with Khair began in 1798, when Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign seemed to portend a French invasion of India. The Resident’s enemies (deposed Indian politicians, corrupt British officers, even the chief of his personal bodyguard)denounced the secret marriage to Wellesley on the grounds that it would stir up anti-British sentiment in Hyderabad. Wellesley asked Kirkpatrick for an explanation for this “outrage”, intending to sack him but Kirkpatrick, with the help of his elderhalf-brother William (Wellesley’s right-hand man), successfully lied his way out of trouble. Much of Dalrymple’s narrative has the pace of a thriller as one narrow squeak succeeds another, and there are more twists in the story than would be deemedcredible if encountered in a novel. Finally, Wellesley sent his brother to destroy the Marathas in 1803, which he accomplished at Assaye. The East India Company, alarmed at this unauthorised expansionism, recalled Wellesley and sent out a Lord Cornwallisas governor. While travelling to meet his new boss, Kirkpatrick fell ill and died in Calcutta in 1805, leaving a 19-year- old widow and two small children.
The coda to the tale is sad, and all Dalrymple’s great gifts are on display as he makes us feel the pity and terror of the occasion. Khair hastened to Calcutta to honour her late husband, but then found herself barred from returning to Hyderabad, when achange of regime brought in a hostile prime minister. A womanising career official named Henry Russell, who had served Kirkpatrick in Hyderabad, then seduced Khair and lived with her for a while in Masulipatam. Unlike Kirkpatrick, who really loved herand had been prepared to sacrifice his career for her, Russell, who comes across as a conceited monster of selfishness, was just using her. When posted to Madras, he abandoned her and found himself a wealthy European wife. Crushed by the news, Khair wentinto decline. Despite her wealth and beauty, she never remarried and died grief-stricken at the age of 27.
Dalrymple’s story has several morals. East and West are not irreconcilable despite the Madame Butterfly scenario but, most of all, it seems thatthe Victorians in the Raj succeeded in colonising not just India but our very imagination and the way we think about British-Indian relations. Above all, this book is a bravura display of scholarship, writing and insight. No brief review can do justiceto its manifold excellence and all one can say is that Dalrymple manages the incredible feat of outpointing most historians and most novelists in one go. This is quite simply a stunning achievement.