The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, also known as Zafar, died in a British prison in Burma in 1862. As the last of the dynastic line that extended back to the sixteenth century, he had in his earlier years presided over a culturally sophisticated court, but as the British East India Company extended its control over more of India, his rule was clearly coming to an end. Then the mutiny of the sepoys against their British officers led to the siege of Delhi, the establishment of direct British colonial rule, and the end of any pretensions of Zafar as emperor. Dalrymple has mined the Persian and Urdu archives to capture the culture of Zafar's court life -- a culture of artists and intellectuals, of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Dalrymple has little to say about what triggered the mutiny, but he does add greatly to the standard picture of the horrors of the fighting that destroyed a great deal of the city of Delhi.
Von Tunzelmann takes up the story of the end of the British Empire and the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan. She does this with great wit and insight, starting with the first sentences of her opening chapter: "In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. The year was 1577. . . ." She moves the story quickly forward to the personal relations of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy -- whose wife, Edwina, was engaged in a daily exchange of passionate love letters with Nehru.
Get the latest book reviews delivered to your inbox.