By Rijuta Gupta:
A good writer takes you along his journey with the characters and settings of his story. Hence, with a historian like William Dalrymple you travel through history in its most enthralling form. “The Last Mughal” is about the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar — II and the fall of the Mughal Dynasty in Delhi in the backdrop of 1857 revolt. My interest in history made me take up this book but while surfing through its pages began my affair with William Dalrymple’s narrations.
A person with an artistic bent of mind has completely different perspective of life than a person meant to rule. “The Last Mughal” brings out this dichotomy in Zafar’s existence as a ruler and as an individual with Sufism and artistic inclination. This book also weaved an intriguing narration of how a weak administration breeds deceit, treachery, chaos and all kinds of corrupt practices within the administrative setup that percolates down to every sphere of life of commoners.
Zafar’s reign witnessed integrated religious existence but with administrative laxity and shortage of funds during revolt this thread broke, benefiting the Britishers. Zafar’s much younger queen Zenat Mehal Begum with her misplaced ambitions lead to many conspiracies and Zafar’s biases towards her showed the way to deceit within the household. Though Zafar tried to provide for his subjects but chaos in his personal and administrative sphere rendered his efforts fruitless. Revolutionary with lack of effective leadership turned into plunderers and ultimately Britishers became the rulers. This historical account can be churned out to be a good Masala flick and sounds fictional. But it is rightly said that truth is stranger than fiction. May be this is reason why Dalrymple has given all the necessary citation in detail, leaving no scope for the authentication of his narration to come under the cloud of doubts.
Reading the book and knowing the characters astonished me as those characters resembled the people around us in present time. I wondered what has changed in us and the answer that I got was nothing has changed within us but only exteriors are changing. Minds and hearts of human beings have remained similar and time has managed to change only the circumstances and the external shell. We react in same manner in a specific condition. Our morals change with the passage of time but they exhibit more of changed circumstances rather than changed emotions or altered thought process.
“The Last Mughal” and its setting of Delhi in pre and post revolt period come to forefront while drawing its parallel in recent times. A weak and corrupt administration leads to chaos at micro levels too. Today it seems everyone is involved in looting amidst atmosphere of mistrust and fear of being victimized is dominating our psyche. Everyone is confused on what to do and how to do. In these times I recall the lesson conveyed in the last line of the book in which Dalrymple quoted Edmund Burke “Those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it”.