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Ashraf into middle class: Muslims in Nineteenth-century Delhi By Margrit Pernau, Oxford, Rs 995

Historiographers have successfully ventured into interesting domains and extensive research is helping one understand the past better. The book under review is about the Ashraf, or people from noble families during the Mughal period. The narrative discusses the plurality of Muslim identities in 19th century Delhi. Margrit Pernau has taken up a difficult subject. But she has managed to effectively discuss the important issues related to it.

This book may be of some interest to the academics. However, it remains to be seen if such a book will appeal to the ordinary readerís intellect. The idea behind the book is full of enormous possibilities. Pernauís book helps one see 19th century Delhi in a new light. Her areas of study are not confined to nobles in the courts but goes way beyond that. It shows how their financial and social status changed with the change of dynasties and power structures. She elaborates on issues like, secularization, spread of education and establishment of different schools of thought, the emergence of the civil society, and colonial administration. Pernau also makes a comparative study with the historiography of Europe to arrive at some plausible conclusion.

The narrative also explores the complex pattern of the development of religious identities. The three parts of the book deal with the decline of the Mughal power and the the establishment of the British rule in India. But on another level, the book also explores a host of related subjects that historians usually evade. The book highlights the decline of the Mughal rule and the subsequent slow invasion of the British rulers in different parts of the country.

Pernau compares the middle class and its rise in Europe after the French Revolution with the nobles of India after the disintegration of the Mughal power in the 19th century. She brings out interesting comparisons with the English middle class to drive home the point. The beginning of direct rule of the British in India meant that power was slowly shifting its focus from the traditional elites of the country. The Ashraf could understand that it was not possible to manage with the income from estates. They had to supplement their income either by working as administrators or by associating themselves with academic activities. The last part of the book explores the heyday of the British rule and discusses the position of the nobility.

What makes the book an interesting read is that it has references to some forgotten manuscripts that have seldom been used by historians. She has extensively researched the Persian and Urdu manuscripts and her sincere effort has paid off dividends. The question of the White Mughals, or the manner in which the English were trying to assimilate with the nobles of the time, adds a new thread to the narrative. The simplicity of approach makes it an interesting read and will surely open new avenues of thought.