August 08, 2020
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Jigsaw Bits

Nabobs, ghosts and Brit ghouls

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Jigsaw Bits
Mughals, Maharajas & The Mahatma
By K.R.N. Swamy
Harper Collins India Rs 195; Pages: 265
Mughals, Maharajas & the Mahatma is a collection of 39 episodes, most of them highlighting events that are historically true but little-known. And black and white illustrations by Tapas Guha add to its visual appeal. Each episode is informative and rather interesting. In his introduction, the author tells the reader: "... writing history is like assembling pieces of mosaic, sort of solving a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces of the mosaic may not be available—to be completed later." Among the incidents: the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had gifted a cotton stole, made of yarn he had spun, to Queen Elizabeth when she got married in 1947. Not many know this remorse-ridden postscript: General Dyer told the finance secretary six months after commanding his soldiers to fire on an unarmed crowd at Jallianwala Bagh: "I have not had a night's sleep since that happened. I keep seeing it all over again." Swamy talks about nabobs like Lord Clive and Warren Hastings who amassed from India vast wealth, jewellery, and other precious objects—like the Pearl Carpet of the Maharaja of Baroda.

He concludes the book with a chapter on British ghosts—Warren Hastings' haunted house in Calcutta and haunted houses in various hill stations. Those used to a cut-and-dried version of history would find the book very absorbing. Despite the title, not many Mughals find a place in the book. Only three essays are about Mughals—two on the Taj, one on Bahadur Shah Zafar. The book skims the surface of modern Indian history and comes up with an occasional gem or two. But there are no notes, no bibliography, little to indicate the source of Swamy's information. To quote from the preface: "My 50-year-old collection of newspaper clippings and archival materials collected from libraries all over the world were irretrievably damaged by the heavy rains on 10 June 1990." A pity, for with references, the book would have been valuable source material.

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