Masterfully demonstrating that truth can trump fiction, English travel writer Dalrymple (From the Holy Mountain, 1998, etc.) relates a wrenching tale of love’s labors lost on the Indian subcontinent.
In the last years of the 18th century, Major James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident at the Court of Hyderabad, fell in love with and eventually married Khair un-Nissa Begum, a bright and beautiful teenager, the great-niece of the local diwan (prime minister). The couple’s son and daughter went to live in England with their paternal grandfather and never saw their mother again. The daughter, Kitty, later became the object of Thomas Carlyle’s amorous attentions (unconsummated) and served as the model for a character in Sartor Resartus. Dalrymple discovered the threads of this story during a brief sojourn in Hyderabad and quickly realized they could form a most attractive tapestry. His research is extensive, meticulous, even astonishing as he chases his characters across continents, unearthing a surprising number of critical documents that provide fuel for the light he casts over these long-obscured events. The British authorities were so alarmed about their Resident’s behavior that they held several investigations; the author located official reports and quotes liberally from them. But Kirkpatrick was such an asset to the British cause in the region—he negotiated tricky treaties, spoke the local languages, finessed and eventually expelled the French—that he kept his position despite the scandal and the determined efforts to dislodge him made by India’s Governor General, the intractable Richard Wellesley (brother of Arthur, Duke of Wellington). Illness eventually killed Kirkpatrick at age 41, and his widow took up with his assistant, who—unlike his deceased superior—yielded to enormous pressures and gave her up. Dalrymple argues that the Brits “went native” a lot more than has been commonly thought and that West can meet East if love is the lingua franca.
Rigorously researched, intelligent, compassionate. A tour de force. (2 maps, 50 illustrations, not seen)