India is a sumptuous place. Telling its story properly demands lush language, not to mention sensitivity towards the country’s passionate complexity. Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India. Yet from this book of beauty, a stark warning emerges. The company was a starting point for firms such as Google, Amazon and Halliburton that today run roughshod over the laws and customs of the countries in which they operate. This is, in the end, a book about the “insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can . . . become those of the state”. It’s an old story, but also a very modern one.
Dalrymple narrates all this without judgment, but with much sympathy for the losers in this chaos. His characters are sketched with deft touches that would be familiar to a Mughal court miniaturist. There is the blunt, rapacious, depressive Clive of India; a series of dissolute, incompetent princes; the attractive Shah Alam, whom we follow from cultured, clever, unlucky prince to blind emperor; principled administrators traduced by their enemies; generals betrayed by their mercenary soldiers and, behind it all, the directors of the EIC itself, in their Leadenhall headquarters, with its discreet frontage, hundreds of clerks and numerous boardrooms.... But the book’s real achievement is to take readers to an important and neglected period of British and south Asian history, and to make their trip there not just informative but as colourful as a Maratha army in full battle array, as boisterous as a Calcutta boarding house in 1750, and as entertaining as an evening of poetry and music in a Delhi palace.
Dalrymple is based with his family in India where he lives on a cherished goat farm just outside Delhi. And yes, he is an historian but a lively story-teller as well so that in reading The Anarchy you will be both appalled and enriched, though not necessarily in equal measure, for Dalrymple takes no prisoners recognising that deceit and cruelty were to be found, to different degrees, on both sides in this invigorating account of colonial history.
Dalrymple’s prodigious talents are on full display in the telling of this story: his ability to direct the big picture and give us convincing viewpoints from each of the very different players; to paint beautiful miniature portraits of the key figures; to describe landscapes in such detail that they seem familiar even though we may never have been there; and above all to make us care about things that happened 300 years ago. He is even-handed, too, for while he condemns the Company’s administration for bringing on the anarchy and misery that overwhelmed princely India, he recognises that some of the Company’s traders and administrators (his own relatives among them) acted on a personal level in the way one would have wished the Company to have done.
William Dalrymple has been for some years one of the most eloquent and assiduous chroniclers of Indian history. With this new work, he sounds a minatory note... Part of Dalrymple’s excellence is in the use of Indian sources – he takes numerous quotes from Ghulam Hussain Khan, and to my shame I have never heard of his work. Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics or some other entrepreneurial publisher might do well to commission a selection of this writing, or indeed of the poetry of the unfortunate Shah Alam. Sir Walter Scott wrote one novel – The Surgeon’s Daughter – set in India. Much of it is the kind of orientalism that Dalrymple writes against (it has “Tippoo Saib” and Hyder Ali in it, and a memorable scene where the honourable Hyder has the villain stamped to death by an elephant). Dalrymple has done a great service in not just writing an eminently readable history of 18th century India, but in reflecting on how so much of it serves as a warning for our own time.
Dalrymple is a storyteller, not a polemicist; he lays out his narrative in unsparing detail and leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions. In his recounting of events and motivations he skilfully depicts both the chaos and anarchy that enveloped India when the British seized their chance, and the cynicism and avarice that propelled most British actions... At the same time, he gives us enough information to read between the lines... The Anarchy is a lucidly written, knowledgeable and gripping work of narrative history; it doesn’t need the lecture. It is well worth reading in its own right.
However well-known these events may be to some – thanks not least to his own work – Dalrymple’s spirited, detailed telling will be reason enough for many readers to devour The Anarchy. But his more novel and arguably greater achievement lies in the way he places the company’s rise in the turbulent political landscape of late Mughal India. It was contemporary Indian chroniclers who called this period “the anarchy”, due to the waves of invasion and civil war that shook Mughal power and allowed a host of regional actors – of which the company was merely one – to gain ascendancy... He has a particular talent for using Indian paintings as historical sources, a skill complemented by the volume’s sumptuous illustrations. And nobody sets a scene as well as he does, whether scoping out an enemy fleetthrough an informant’s spyglass, or watching the waterlogged bodies of famine victims floating down the Hooghly river, or roaming the rubbished and ruined streets of ransacked Delhi.
[Dalrymple's] subject is almost mind-bogglingly melodramatic, and he inevitably draws parallels with the excesses of today’s multinational corporations. To my slight surprise, though, I closed the book without feeling any particular outrage at the company’s actions... The most obvious weakness of Dalrymple’s book [...] is that it is so lopsided. We learn virtually nothing about the kind of people who invested in or worked for the company, let alone the way it actually worked or its impact on British society. Indeed, for long stretches the company is not even mentioned, with Dalrymple plunging headlong into some new war between two minor Indian potentates. As the pages go by, it becomes glaringly obvious that he is not really interested in the company at all, but in the dynastic politics of late Mughal India. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But since the company is such a terrific subject, it’s a shame he didn’t write a book about it.
Ultimately, Dalrymple shines a forensic light on the knotty historical relationship between commercial and imperial power. The East India Company emerges with little credit from this examination. Under its watch, as Mughal historian Fakir Khair ud-Din Illahabadi put it, “the once peaceful realm of India became the abode of Anarchy”.
It is well-trodden territory but Dalrymple, a historian and author who lives in India and has written widely about the Mughal empire, brings to it erudition, deep insight and an entertaining style. He also has a pitch — that globalisation is rooted here, albeit that “the world’s largest corporations . . . are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company.”
In his long-awaited The Anarchy, William Dalrymple meets this challenge by playing to his considerable strengths. He focuses on 18th-century India, about which he has written much already. The main theme here is the disintegration of the ‘magnificent’ Mughal Empire and the Company’s aggressive usurpation of Indian sovereignty. Combining extensive research, judicious analysis and an acceptable level of outrage, Dalrymple’s compelling account will cement his status as the most widely read British writer on India since Kipling.