William Dalrymple narrates the story behind the writing of his new work, The White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (Penguin, India), a book set against the tale of a British army officer who for the love of a young Hyderabadi noblewoman converted to Islam and became a double agent for the Nizam
I first heard about James Achilles Kirkpatrick on a visit to India in February 1997. I had just finished a book on the Middle East, four years’ work, and was burnt out. I went to the ancient city of Hyderabad in southern India, to get away from my desk and my bookshelves, to relax and recover.
It was spring, and the stones of the mosques of the Old City were warm underfoot. Unlike the immediate, monumental splendour of Agra or the Rajput cities of the north, Hyderabad seemed to hide its charms from the eyes of outsiders, veiling its splendours from curious eyes behind nondescript walls and labyrinthine backstreets. Only slowly did it allow you into a hidden world where water still dripped from palace fountains and peacocks called from the overladen mango trees. There, hidden away, was a world of timelessness and calm where, as one historian has put it, old ‘Hyderabadi gentlemen still wore the fez, dreamt about the rose and the nightingale, and mourned the loss of Grenada.’
What really gripped me was to discover that this romantic and courtly atmosphere had infected even the sober British when they arrived in the city at the end of the eighteenth century. The old British Residency (effectively the British Embassy), now a Women’s College, was a vast Palladian villa, in plan not unlike its contemporary, the White House in Washington, and it lay in a garden just over the River Musi from the old city.
The complex, I was told, was built by Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the court of Hyderabad between 1797 and 1805. Kirkpatrick had gone out to India full of ambition, intent on making his name in the subjection of a nation; but instead it was he who was conquered, not by an army but by a Hyderabadi noblewoman called Khair un-Nissa. I was told how in 1800, after falling in love with Khair, Kirkpatrick not only married her, according to Muslim law, and adopted Mughal clothes and ways of living, but had actually converted to Islam and had become a double agent working against the East India Company and for the Hyderabadis.
The Residency he had built was now in a bad way. Inside, I found plaster falling in chunks from the ceiling of the old ballroom. Upstairs the old bedrooms were decayed and deserted, frequented only by bats and the occasional pair of amorous pigeons. As the central block of the house was deemed too dangerous for the students, most of the classes now took place in the old elephant stables at the back. Yet even in this state of semi-ruination it was easy to see how magnificent the Residency had once been. On the north front a pair of British lions lay, paws extended, below a huge colonnaded front, every inch the East India Company at its grandest and most formal.
I was shown a battered token of Kirkpatrick’s love for his wife in the garden at the back of the Residency. The tale went as follows: that as Khair un-Nissa remained all her life in strict purdah, living in a separate bibi-ghar ( ‘women’s house’) at the end of Kirkpatrick’s garden, she was unable to walk around her husband’s great creation to admire its wonderful portico.
The relations of the Begum were naturally very furious and for a time the life of the lovers was in danger, but their passion for one another was not of a character as could be restrained by fear or disappointment
Eventually Kirkpatrick had hit upon a solution and built a model of his new palace for her so that she could examine in detail what she would never allow herself to see with her own eyes. The model had survived intact until the 1980s when a tree fell on it, smashing the right wing. The remains lay under a piece of corrugated iron, near the ruins of the Mughal bibi ghar, buried deep beneath a jungle of vines and creepers in the area still known as the Begum’s Garden. I thought it was the most lovely story, and by the time I left the garden I was captivated, and wanted to know more. The whole romantic tale simply seemed so different from what one expected of the British in India, and I spent the rest of my time in Hyderabad pursuing anyone who could tell me more. Little did I know that it was to be the start of an obsession that would completely take over my life for the next five years.
I was especially fascinated as I had long thought about writing a book on the British who ‘went native’ in India. Beneath the familiar story of the British conquest and rule of the subcontinent, I believed that there lay a far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story about the Indian conquest of the British imagination. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs, and even the religions, of India, as the reverse. These White Mughals had responded to their travels in India by slowly shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, and adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philosophy, taking harems and adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they slowly came to replace—what Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called ‘chutnification’. Moreover, the White Mughals were far from an insignificant minority. The wills of the period show that in the 1780’s over one third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives.
Back in London, I searched around for more about Kirkpatrick. My first real break came when I found that Kirkpatrick’s correspondence with his brother William, had recently been bought by the India Office Library. There were piles of letter books inscribed ‘From my brother James Achilles Kirkpatrick’ (the paper within all polished and frail with age), great gilt leather-bound volumes of official correspondence with the Governor General, bundles of Persian manuscripts, some boxes of receipts and, in a big buff envelope, a will—exactly the sort of random yet detailed detritus of everyday lives that biographers dream of turning up.
At first, however, many of the letters seemed disappointingly mundane: gossip about court politics, requests for information from Calcutta, the occasional plea for a crate of Madeira or the sort of vegetables Kirkpatrick found unavailable in the Hyderabad bazaars. This was all interesting enough, but initially seemed unremarkable, and I found maddeningly few references either to Kirkpatrick’s love affairs. Moreover, much of the more interesting material was in cipher. No sooner did Kirkpatrick begin to talk about his amorous adventures, or the espionage network he was involved in setting up, than the clear and steady penmanship would dissolve into long lines of incomprehensible numbers.
It was only after several weeks of reading that I finally came to the files that contained the Khair un-Nissa letters, and some of these, it turned out, were not encoded. One day, as I opened yet another India Office cardboard folder, my eyes fell on the following paragraph written in a small, firm, sloping hand:
“The interview when I had a full and close survey of her lovely Person lasted during the greatest part of the night and was evidently contrived by the Grandmother and mother whose very existence hang on hers to indulge her uncontrollable wishes. At this meeting, which was under my roof, I contrived to command myself so far as to abstain from the tempting feast I was manifestly invited to, and though God knows I was but ill qualified for the task, I attempted to argue the Romantic Young Creature out of a passion which I could not, I confess, help feeling myself something more than pity for. She declared to me again and again that her affections had been irrevocably fixed on me, that her fate was linked to mine and that she should be content to pass her days with me as the humblest of handmaids. Until such time the young ladies person was inviolate but was it human nature to remain proof against another such fiery trial? I think you cannot but allow that I must have been something more or less than a man to have held out any longer…”
Soon after this I found some pages of cipher which had been overwritten with a ‘translation’, and the code turned out to be a simple one-letter/one-number correspondence. Once this was solved, the whole story quickly began to come together.
Hyderabad in 1800 was a frontier town a bit like post-war Berlin or Vienna: a city alive with intrigue and conspiracy, where the British and the French were vying with each other for dominance. Soon after Napoleon had landed in Egypt and vowed to liberate India from the British, Kirkpatrick had managed to surround and disarm the French in Hyderabad, and immediately after their surrender had gone to a victory party. It was there that he glimpsed Khair un-Nissa for the first time. Despite the fact that she was only fifteen, was in purdah, a Sayyida (a direct descendant of the Prophet), and moreover already engaged to a leading Mughal nobleman, the two had fallen in love, and as a contemporary chronicle put it: “When the story of their amours became public, a general sensation took place. The relations of the Begum were naturally very furious and for a time the life of the lovers was in danger, but their passion for one another was not of a character as could be restrained by fear or disappointment. Every obstacle thrown in their way only seemed to make it stronger and stronger…”
As the scandal spread, Khair un-Nissa’s grandfather threatened to go to the central mosque and raise the Muslims of Hyderabad against the British, and Kirkpatrick was ordered by his superiors to stop seeing the girl. He was forced to agree, and everyone believed the affair was over. But what none of the men knew—and what all the women in the harem were all too aware of—was that Khair was now three months pregnant.
Before long Khair’s pregnancy became public and rumours reached the Governor General in Calcutta that James had raped Khair. When Kirkpatrick was charged with this crime, the Hyderabad Prime Minister cut a deal with James: he would testify to James’s innocence, and allow James to marry Khair—but there was a pro quid quo. James had to promise to “strive for the best interests of our government and will obey all our orders”—in other words to become a Hyderabadi agent.
For four years I beavered away reconstructing the story through page after page of James’s letters at the India Office Library, returning to Delhi and Hyderabad occasionally to examine the archives there. Inevitably, in India there were problems. In Delhi, in the vaults of the Indian National Archives, someone installing a new air-conditioning system had absent-mindedly left out in the open all six hundred volumes of the Hyderabad Residency Records. It was the monsoon. By the time I came back for a second look at the records the following year, most were irretrievably wrecked, and those that were not waterlogged were covered with thick green mould. After a couple of days a decision was taken that the mould was dangerous, and all six hundred volumes were sent off ‘for fumigation’. I never saw them again.
Gradually, despite such setbacks, the love story began to take shape. It was like watching a Polaroid develop, as the outlines slowly established themselves and the colour began to fill in the remaining white spaces. The story gradually emerged of how, cleared of the rape charge, James had secretly converted to Islam and married Khair. Soon after Khair gave birth to a son, named Sahib Allum (‘Little Lord of the World’), and daughter, Sahib Begum (‘Lady of High Lineage’). To accommodate his new family James began a major building project: to design the vast Palladian villa I had seen as his new official Residency, complete with Capablity Brown-style park, a ha-ha and grazing sheep. Behind it he constructed a Mughal zenana for Khair built in marble with fountains and Indian wall paintings, as well as a Mughal garden. For four years James slipped very happily between these two worlds: by day, he lived his official life with one language, and one set of clothes, while in the evening he would get into his kurta pyjamas, and step into the parallel world of his Mughal wife and his Urdu-speaking Muslim family.
This unlikely arcadia finally came to an end after five years when James decided that it would be best to send the children back to Britain to receive an English education and so be able to choose between their two worlds. Despite Khair’s protests, the children were torn from her arms and sent to England, having first had their picture painted by the artist Chinnery wearing their old Hyderabadi clothes for the last time. On arrival in London they were baptised Christians and given the names William and Kitty Kirkpatrick. James, who was now very ill with hepatitis, tried to get to Madras to see them off, but caught a fever and missed them. Soon afterwards, ordered to travel straight onto Calcutta to brief the new Governor General, he became seriously ill and finally died in Calcutta, aged only 43, far from everyone he loved and all who loved him. Khair was left a widow, aged only 19.
By 2001, four years into the research, I thought I knew Kirkpatrick so well I imagined that I heard his voice in my head as I read and reread his letters. Yet there still remained important gaps. In particular, the documents gave no hint as to what had happened to Khair after Kirkpatrick’s death. It took another nine months of searching before I stumbled across the heartbreaking answer to that in some papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The tale—which had never been told— bore a striking resemblance to Madame Butterfly.
It emerged that after a year of mourning, Khair had decided to make an epic journey on elephant back, one thousand miles across the length of India, to visit her husband’s grave in Calcutta. Lonely and despairing and far from home, she was eventually seduced by the only man she knew in Calcutta, James’s former assistant, Henry Russell. But Russell was a very different man from James and had refused to marry her. Worse still, when the news of Khair’s seduction by Russell reached Hyderabad, Khair was banished to a scrappy coastal town where she waited in vain for Russell to join her. Russell, however, had other plans, and soon afterwards married a young British heiress in Madras. Khair, broken hearted, wasted away. She was allowed back into Hyderabad to die where she had once been happy: in the zenana of the Residency that James had built for her years earlier.
Hyderabad in 1800 was a frontier town a bit like post war Berlin or Vienna: a city alive with intrigue and conspiracy, where the British and the French were vying with each other for dominance
The final remarkable twist in the story took place a full forty years later. I only came across it a few weeks before I began writing, when family papers belonging to the great-great-great-grandson of Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa turned up a couple of miles from my home in West London. These letters extended the story through to the no less remarkable tale of Khair and James’s daughter, Kitty Kirkpatrick.
After leaving Hyderabad, Kitty had been completely cut off from her maternal relations. Instead she had been absorbed into the upper echelons of Victorian literary society, where she had fascinated her tutor, the young Thomas Carlyle, and formed the basis for the heroine Blumine in Carlyle’s celebrated novel Sartor Resartus. One day in May 1841, visiting friends in the Home Counties, Kitty was taken to tea in a stranger’s house, walked in the door- and promptly fainted. On the wall was the Chinnery portrait of her painted in Madras when she was four.
It transpired that the house belonged to her mother’s seducer, Henry Russell, who had retired to England with a corruptly acquired fortune and a baronetcy. Kitty began to investigate what her portrait was doing on Russell’s wall and while uncovering the truth about her mother’s end, also discovered that her grandmother was, remarkably, still alive aged 85 in a Hyderabadi harem. The two begin an emotional correspondence: Kitty writing on Basildon Bond from Torquay; the grandmother responding by dictating to a scribe in letters illuminated with gold leaf. Kitty wrote-
I often think of you and remember you and my dear mother. I often dream that I am with you in India and that I see you both in the room you used to sit in. No day of my life has ever passed without my thinking of my dear mother. When I dream of my mother I am in such joy to have found her again that I awake, or else am pained in finding that she cannot understand the English I speak. I can well recollect her cries when we left her and I can now see the place where she sat when we parted, and her tearing her long hair—what worlds would I give to possess one lock of that beautiful and much loved hair! How dreadful to think that so many, many years have passed when it would have done my heart such good to think that you loved me and when I longed to write to you and tell you these feelings that I was never able to express, a letter which I was sure would have been detained and now how wonderful it is that after 35 years I am able for the first time to hear that you think of me, and love me. I thank God that he has opened for me a way of making the feelings of my heart known to you.”
Granny responded in Persian, enclosing the lock of Khair un-Nissa’s hair she had kept all that time for Kitty: “Fresh vigour was instilled into my deadened heart and such immeasurable joy was attained by me that it cannot be brought within the compass of being written or recounted. My Child, the Light of my Eyes, the solace of my soul, may God grant you long life!”
The two made plans to meet—but tragically Sharaf un-Nissa died on the eve of the Indian Mutiny—the cataclysm that sweeps away for ever the hybrid world of the White Mughals.
The story of a family where three generations drifted between Christianity and Islam and back again, between suits and salvars, Mughal Hyderabad and Victorian London, seemed to me to raise huge questions: about Britishness and the nature of Empire, about faith, and about personal identity; indeed, about how far all of these mattered, and were fixed and immutable—or how far they were in fact flexible, tractable, negotiable. Yet clearly—and this was what really fascinated me —while the documentation surrounding Kirkpatrick’s story was uniquely well-preserved, giving a window into a world that few realise ever existed, the situation itself was far from unusual.
The Kirkpatricks inhabited a world that was far more hybrid, and with far less clearly defined ethnic, national and religious borders, than we have all been conditioned to expect. Since the late-twentieth-century implosion of Empire and the arrival in the West of large numbers of Indians, who have almost all as a matter of course assumed Western clothes and Western manners, this East-to-West cross-fertilisation of cultures does not surprise us. But, perhaps bizarrely, the reverse still does: that a European should voluntarily choose to cross over—and ‘turn Turk’ as the Elizabethans put it, or ‘go native’ or ‘Tropo’, to use the Victorian phrases—is still something which has the capacity to take us aback.
Only seventy-five years after the death of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and indeed within the lifetime of his Anglo-Indian, Torquay-Hyderabadi, Islamo-Christian daughter, it was possible for Kipling to write that ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet’. There is a tendency to laugh at Kipling today; but at a time when respectable academics talk of a Clash of Civilisations, and East and West, Islam and Christianity appear to be engaged in another major confrontation, this unlikely group of expatriates provides a timely reminder that it is indeed very possible—and has always been possible—to reconcile the two worlds. It is only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear that drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do again.
The White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India by William Dalrymple was published by HarperCollins on the 5th of October and Penguin, India on the 11th of November, 2002.
This story was originally features in our December 2002 issue