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By This above all Khushwant Singh
  • Published 30.11.02

Two centuries ago, liaisons and marriages between European adventurers and Indian women, mostly Muslim, were not uncommon. This was largely due to the fact that Europeans — Portuguese, Dutch, French and English — came to India in the prime of their youth, there were very few white women available, and the men were compelled to visit brothels, or like well-to-do Indians, maintain harems of Indian concubines or mistresses. They were not particularly concerned about the religious divide: if they wanted to marry Muslim women, they underwent nominal conversion to Islam; if they took on Hindu wives, they observed Hindu customs and gave up eating beef. Although these inter-racial marriages created problems with relatives on both sides, they were overcome or ignored.

Among the most celebrated liaisons followed by a secret marriage ending in a painful separation was that of Begum Khairunnissa, niece of the prime minister of Hyderabad and a Scotsman, Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick British resident at the court of the Nizam. The story of the romance has been written before but never as thoroughly researched and as well-told as in William Dalrymple’s White Mughals: Love’s Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India. I haven’t read anything as gripping since his earlier novel on Delhi, City of Djinns.

Dalrymple has used the Khairunnissa-Kirkpatrick romance and tragedy to explore the entire gamut of Euro-Indian personal relationships. Early in the novel he spells out his theme: “India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them.” The process of assimilation created new hybrids of half-castes known as “tropos” or “anglo-Indians. Salman Rushdie describes it as “chutnification”. Thus James Kirkpatrick, though a colonel in British army wore Mughal-style dress at home, smoked a hookah, chewed betelnut, enjoyed nautch parties, maintained a small harem in his zenanakhana, spoke Hindustani and Persian as fluently as English and associated with the omrah of Hyderabad on more than equal terms. The nizam had invested him with many titles: mutamin ul mulk, hushmat jung (valiant in battle), nawab fakhr-ud-dowlah bahadur.

Khairunnissa was a Sayyed of Persian descent, a Shia belonging to Hyderabad’s aristocracy. Though kept in strict purdah, she saw the handsome Scotsman from behind the screen at nautch parties and riding past her haveli. She was engaged to a cousin but this did not prevent her from falling madly in love with the sahib. If he could not get to her, she was determined to get to him. The fact that she was only fourteen, and the man she had set her heart upon in his early thirties did not deter her. She got her mother to take her along to the British residency and there, while her mother was in the zenana, she contrived to be with Kirkpatrick, and pleaded with him to marry her. She threatened to consume poison if he did not. Kirkpatrick proceeded to deflower her. She was uncommonly beautiful and had a voracious appetite for sex — a veritable Lolita of Mughal times. She repeated her visits and became pregnant. The affair became known, and was reported to the governor-general in Calcutta. By now Kirkpatrick was also in love with Khairunnissa. When she was seven months pregnant, he agreed to marry her. A nikah required his conversion to Islam. Khairunnissa bore him a son and a daughter, both of whom were given Muslim and Christian names.

Kirkpatrick’s fortunes declined with Lord Wellesley’s appointment as governor-general of British possessions in India. Wellesley was an imperialist determined to expel the French, destroy Tipu Sultan, cut the Marathas to size and reduce the nizam to subservience. He strongly disapproved of British-Indian liaisons. Though he was no paragon of virtue himself — he impregnated a married white woman in Capetown on his way to Calcutta — he summoned Kirkpatrick to Calcutta to be reprimanded and dismissed.

Kirkpatrick, sick and broken-hearted, packed off his children to England and came to Calcutta as summoned. He died on October 15, 1805. He was only 41 year old. Khairunnissa was only 19. The grieving widow made her way to Calcutta to shed tears on her late husband’s grave. Her chief comforter was Henry Russel, appointed to take Kirkpatrick’s office in Hyderabad. They travelled back together, and on their homeward journey, became lovers. At Masulipatnam Khairunnissa got the order that she was not to enter the nizam’s territories. Russel proceeded to Hyderabad without her. On a visit to Madras he fell for an half-Portuguese beauty and married her. Ultimately the ban was lifted and Khairunnissa returned to Hyderabad. She died on September 22, 1813. She was only 27.

Dalrymple packs a in a lot of incidental information while relating the tragic life of Khairunnissa. At the time no potatoes or peas were grown in the Deccan; they had to be got from Calcutta. Begara baigin, a highly over-rated preparation of aubergines that become a greatly relished dish, the nizam sent it regularly to Kirkpatrick. While Muslim ladies had little hesitation in bedding white men, when it came to marriage they insisted their men first convert to Islam and be circumcized — an operation causing much pain when performed in middle-age. Also, both men and women shaved their public hair. There were barbers who specialised in the art. Concubines had a comparatively easier life. A British general who had eleven in his harem allowed them to practice their faiths. One of them, who had been a prostitute, built a mosque in Delhi which is still known as Rundi ki Masjid. One practice of which I was wholly unaware was making male children suck the breasts of their infant sisters; so that brothers and sisters would forever love each other. Apparently Akbar made his son, Jehangir, do this. This is much to read and enjoy in Dalrymple’s latest offering.

If it is bhindi, it must be California

Harbhajan Singh Samra, with a farming background and an MA degree in economics, migrated to California and decided to try his luck producing vegetables for the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities settled there. Luck favoured him. He started with bhindi (okra) in 1991. It was an instant success. He added baigan (aubergine), tinda, gajar, methi and moolee (long white radish). Today, his 200-acre farm in Indio has an annual turnover of $ 12 million. Starting from scratch 11 years ago, he is now a millionaire, and known as the Okra King of California.

Samra tested different soils, had many setbacks before he was able to produce high-quality Indian vegetables. He now exports his produce to Canada and European countries where there are Asian communities. He is not resting on his laurels, though; he is trying to produce Indian fruit on Californian soil. Next year he plans to plant different varieties of Indian mangoes, ber (zizyphus), jamun and jimikand. It will be a few years before they yield fruit. He can afford to wait and hopefully, become a billionaire.

Think before you gift

On his wife’s birthday, a man had no money to buy her a gift. So he hit upon a novel idea. He gifted her a cheque, writing “a hundred kisses” in the space where the amount is mentioned. In the evening, when he returned from his office, his wife exclaimed, “Thanks for the cheque, darling. I got it cashed from the bank’s manager!”

(Contributed by Roshni Johar, Shimla)