A Travel Reading Of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy

Although the book is not a travelogue in the classic mould, it has some meaty detail on locations crucial to the East India Company’s rise in India.

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William Darlymple’s ‘The Anarchy’ examines the factors leading to the rise of the East India Company in India. Photo By: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Towards the end of this book, which is basically an extensive account of more than two hundred years of corporate greed, replete with analyses of battles in which too many died in the often shockingly amorphous wars between Britons and Indians, William Dalrymple writes,

Today a small village squats beside the foundations of Tipu’s former palace, and goats graze in his once magnificent pleasure grounds. Other than the majestic French-designed fortifications, the best-preserved building in Tipu’s former capital is, ironically, the ancient Hindu Sri Ranganatha Temple, after which Tipu’s capital was named, and which was not just protected by Tipu but loaded with valuable gifts which are still on display today, as are all its beautiful Vijayanagara-era images. Not one of these has suffered from the iconoclast’s chisel, despite standing in the middle of the capital of a ruler denounced by his British enemies as a fanatical ‘intolerant bigot’.

In his analysis of the Mysore Wars, he is being thought-provokingly balanced when he describes the times and events preceding the fall of Tipu in 1799–lauding the sultan’s administrative genius and good governance while not shying away from the problematic issues of extreme brutality against peoples he fought with.

It is interesting how Dalrymple, the once upon a time Bruce Chatwin epigone who styles himself as a sort of “last white Mughal of Delhi” running the literary scene, more or less, and who has an obscure Anglo-Indian ancestry–a distant uncle of his died in the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta”–has reinvented himself as the number one historian of British India, and in the process some of us readers may have come to miss his more adventurous travel writing. But at points such as the above, where he captures in brief the historical complexity of a once important place, the reader stops to reflect on the difference between Dalrymple and academic historians. His decades of travel writing have rubbed off. Although this is not a travelogue in the mould of his earliest rumbustious rambles, but a quite serious stab at immortalising himself as a scholar as evidenced by 138 pages of its 500+ fatness being dedicated to footnotes and bibliographies (in which he lists many of his own works), The Anarchy is a welcome companion for the traveller with a historical inclination.

Essentially an extensive prequel to Dalrymple’s 2006 masterpiece The Last Mughal , which dealt with the fall of the Mughal Empire, this tome is a comprehensive study of how a British-run commercial business, ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,’ better known as East India Company, turned itself into a colonial power. Bizarrely enough, the private merchants created a state within the state by buying off British politicians with huge bribes and then placed a government of their own making to rule India although they basically had no idea what they were doing except making profit in a completely haphazard, yes even anarchic manner, much like the British 1970s orchestra Sex Pistols ruled the music scene back in the days of punk.

Thanks to its encyclopaedic nature and endless index it’s easy to track key events–the amazing growth, for instance, of Calcutta as “The City of Palaces”. Although Dalrymple goes into the minutest details about city defences like wall building technology and the various wars provoked by that very militarisation of British trade, he doesn’t neglect Calcutta’s importance as a trading harbour in which the habits of the European population shaped its culture–from diffident duels to how city-founder Job Charnock allowed his Hindu wife (whom he famously rescued from a sati pyre) to convert him to “Paganism” which scandalized his contemporaries. Indian excesses too are examined, such as what actually took place around the infamous Black Hole of 1756 when Britons were locked up into a tiny chamber (where the current GPO stands) in which most died from asphyxiation including the afore-referred Stair Dalrymple whose name is memorialised in a nearby church.

Pretty much the same goes for most cities–there are juicy titbits on Bombay (it apparently “even had that essential amenity for any God-fearing seventeenth-century Protestant community, a scaffold where ‘witches’ were given a last chance to confess before their execution”), Bangalore, Madras and especially Delhi. Many other historically significant places, such as Chandernagar and Murshidabad, are also vividly sketched in a couple of paragraphs, but like in much of Dalrymple’s writing, the heart is often wandering around somewhere in Delhi.

Dalrymple’s burning passion for Delhi, where he lives part of the time, comes through in the book. There are, for example, anecdotal descriptions of the city in the late-1700s after havoc has been wreaked on it by various hostile forces over “thirty years of incessant warfare, conquest and plunder”. As a striking contrast to how each corner of the glorious city was “adorned with greenery and elegant cypress trees” just fifty years earlier, travellers now speak of how as “far as the eye can reach is one general scene of ruined buildings, long walls, vast arches, and parts of domes”; a Swiss adventurer encounters a “heap of ruins and rubbish”; but the most poignant testimony is that of poet Mir who’s coming back home from exile and cannot believe his eyes, wandering in despair through despoiled streets searching for his old haunts, asking himself (in Urdu) poignantly: “What can I say about the rascally boys of the bazaar when there was no bazaar itself?”

Furthermore, this book also puts the modern tourist’s life into perspective, “Death, from disease or excess, was commonplace, and two-thirds of the Company servants who came out never made it back”. Today, the odds of a safe journey are far better, but history, and learnings from it, are still worth carrying along on a trip as it will surely make one see the modern world in a new light.


The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (Bloomsbury)


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  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).


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