The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple.
This is not a novel of crime fiction. Though it has plenty of intrigue, murder, mayhem, blood and gore, it is a work of serious scholarship of a horrendous episode in Indo-British relationships based on hitherto untapped archival material gathering dust in India, Pakistan, England and Burma. It shows the way history should be written: not as a catalogue of dry-as-dust kings, battles and treaties but to bring the past to the present, put life back in characters long dead and gone and make the reader feel he is living among them, sharing their joys, sorrows and apprehensions.
The rebellion of 1857 lasted only a few months—from May to September 1857—but it shook the whole of India like a severe earthquake, taking a toll of thousands of lives. Its epicentre was Delhi, the capital of the Mughal empire founded by Babar in 1526. By the time it struck, the empire had shrunk to a few square miles around the city. As the adage went: Sultanat Shah Alam az Dilli ta Palam—the kingdom of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam. By the time the last of the emperors ascended the throne, it had shrunk further and was confined to Red Fort; his subjects comprised his vast harem of begums, concubines, their offspring, maidservants and manservants, most of them living in hovels without much to eat. The fort was guarded by an English officer; the so-called emperor received a living allowance from the British Resident and had little to do with governance. He spent his time composing poetry, practising calligraphy, watching his elephants being bathed in the Yamuna, and praying. Once in a while, he rode on his favourite elephant to the royal mosque, Jama Masjid, amid bursts of fireworks, or visited his wife’s relations in the city. What he most looked forward to was holding poetic symposia (mushairas) in the Red Fort or in Delhi College outside Ajmeri Gate where his latest composition was read out first, followed by recitals of other poets, both Indian and European. The mushairas usually ended with recitals by masters like poet laureate Zauq and the greatest of them all, Mirza Asadullah Ghalib, in the early hours of the morning. As Ghalib put it, the candle burns brightest before it flickers and dies out.
Source Credits: Khushwant Singh in Outlook and The Tribune Saturday Extra; Roshni Johar; The Economic Times; Dr. Syed Ahmed in TwoCircles. The photo above shows the capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar and his sons by William Hodson at Humayun’s tomb on 20 September 1857