The Last King in India: Wajid ‘Ali Shah, 1822–1877 by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones - review by Charles Allen

Charles Allen

Out of Lucknow

The Last King in India: Wajid ‘Ali Shah, 1822–1877


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William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal was about the last Indian emperor, the wretched Bahadur Shah Zafar II, tried as a rebel and exiled by the British for his role as figurehead in the great uprising best known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Now we have Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’s The Last King in India, which is the story of the equally wretched Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Oude, the annexation of whose kingdom in 1856 was a major factor in that same Indian Mutiny. Cause and effect, you could say, though one might also ask why so much scholarship should be devoted to two such ineffectual men – to which both authors would no doubt reply that their respective monarchs were essentially symbols and that the real story was about the eclipse of two cultures, those of Mughal Delhi and Shia Lucknow, at the hands of the British. 

Dalrymple’s book was hugely engaging, as one might expect of a writer aptly described by Salman Rushdie as ‘that rarity, a scholar of history who can really write’. Llewellyn-Jones cannot match Dalrymple’s narrative drive but she too holds the reader in a way that makes her books a pleasure to read – and in this respect The Last King in India is no exception. Over the course of several books she has made a name for herself as an authority on that bizarre hybrid high-rococo culture that flourished briefly along the banks of the Gomti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before the British administration in India stepped in to bring it to heel. Here Llewellyn-Jones focuses on its dying phase and its last nawab, who came to the royal gadi in 1847 and nine years later was unceremoniously bundled off to exile outside Calcutta, where he continued to rule over an ever-dwindling harem for another three decades as a pensioner of the British government.

The Last King in India contains a great deal of engaging detail, the liveliest concerning the nawab’s narcissistic theatrical pursuits, involving the active participation of a number of his several hundred wives and concubines, as chronicled in his autobiography, the Ishqnamah (‘Book of Love’). Wajid Ali Shah was initiated into sex at the age of eight and he went on from there. ‘One day,’ summarises Llewellyn-Jones of one of his theatricals,

he was seated in the garden of Hazratbagh, under the shade of a banana tree, reading his own love poetry. He became so inspired by the words that he tore off his robes like Majnun, the mythical lover of Arab and Persian literature. Semi-naked apart from a loincloth, Wajid ‘Ali Shah is joined by two female companions, and the trio smear each other with ash, in imitation of a yogi, a Hindu holy man. More women rush out into the garden to participate and a group of musicians join in the frenzy of naked bodies. Even two of his Muslim courtiers are depicted smeared in ash and holding peacock fans in honour of the king, who has become the chief yogi. As evening approaches, Wajid ‘Ali Shah reclines with his female yogis (joginis) by the banks of a stream, watching fireworks, and he is visited by a number of inquisitive men, who cosset him like a bridegroom.

However, where Llewellyn-Jones sees evidence of the nawab’s religious syncretism – he was the Shia Muslim ruler of a state in which 90 per cent of his subjects were Hindu and the other 10 per cent largely Sunni Muslims – I see little more than evidence of the nawab’s gross self-indulgence; the last tottering steps of a thoroughly decadent, frivolous, corrupt regime that had long forgotten its prime purpose, which was to govern as the maa-baap (‘mother and father’) of the nawab’s subjects.

This tackiness at court is perfectly captured in the splendid collection of colour plates that Llewellyn-Jones has unearthed, many of them from private sources and never before published. The majority show the nawab preening like a plump budgerigar under a vast pantomime crown, getting ever fatter as the years roll by.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is the ruler portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s film The Chess Players (1977), which ends with British redcoats marching into Lucknow while the king goes on playing chess, seemingly oblivious to events. Although based on ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’, a short story by Premchand from the 1920s, Ray drew heavily on Abdul Halim Sharar’s Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture (1975) – still, to my mind, the best and most balanced book on the subject. Ray, like Sharar, had to wrestle with the fact that Wajid Ali Shah was worse than useless as a ruler yet had some redeeming features – his love of poetry and music and his devotion to his faith – that made his downfall tragic, even Aristotelian.

This, I think, is where Llewellyn-Jones comes unstuck. Half of her book is devoted to those last thirty tiresome years in exile. She has little to say about the actual business of state and what went on outside the walls of the Hazaribagh palace, which is where the king’s misrule was at its most damaging. She patently has no time for the British resident William ‘Thugee’ Sleeman, whose extensive enquiries into Oude’s decline – and the causes of it – formed the basis of the government of India’s decision to take over the running of the state. She does Sleeman’s record a disservice in not quoting his stand against annexation, which was unequivocal:

Were we … to annex or confiscate Oude, or any part of it, our good name in India would inevitably suffer; and that good name is more valuable to us than a dozen Oudes … We shall find a few years hence the tables turned against us … the aggressive and absorbing policy, which has done so much mischief of late in India, is beginning to create feelings of alarm in the native mind; and it is when the popular mind becomes agitated by such alarms that fanatics always will be found ready to step into Paradise over the bodies of the most prominent of those from whom injury is apprehended.

There is in India today a great public nostalgia for lost golden ages such as those of Mughal Delhi and Shia Lucknow destroyed by the British. Tipu Sultan’s Mysore is a third example. The reality is that Mughal Delhi had lost its power and lustre (along with its Peacock Throne) long before 1857, following its sacking by the Persian Nader Shah in 1739, and was little but a stage set thereafter. The so-called culture of Lucknow was similarly without substance, albeit infinitely more decadent. I’m not sure that it does Indian history any favours to present such ‘lost’ cultures as something more than they ever were.

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