Book review – The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905

Book review – The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905

A chronicle of imperial rule in 19th century India, largely through the life and times of a clan of redoubtable Lowland Scots.

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The ruins of the British Residency at Lucknow. (Source: Getty Images)

Title: The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905
Author: Ferdinand Mount
Publihser: Simon & Schuster; Pages: 784; Price: Rs 522

A couple of years before he lost his mind, Ram Gharib Chaube, assistant to the ICS ethnologist William Crooke, and chief clerk in fellow Irishman and batch mate George A Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, persuaded his master to let him collect folk songs about the Mutiny. As befitting subaltern compositions in Awadhi and other dialects, a large part of the Chaube Collection turned out to be dirges in the feminine register, as of the banishment of the nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, to Metiabruz in Calcutta: “Tum bin hazrat, aaj mulk bhayo suuno, Angrez bahadur ain: muluk lai linho (Without thee, my Lord, our des is now forlorn; the Great Brits came and snatched away our country).

Grierson and Crooke, Chaube’s superiors, were both graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and had joined the coveted Indian Civil Service in 1871 along with Vincent A Smith and four others from the same institution. This was the distinguished Irish contingent of district collectors who contributed to colonial India’s knowledge economy, as our present rulers are wont to call it. Smith, a prolific historian, also unearthed Kasya, the site of Buddha’s nirvana, 50 km from Chauri Chaura. Crooke and Grierson were not expressly concerned with our history, being more concerned with matters ethnographic and linguistic. Those of us in the business of fathoming the languages and cultures of our long past continue to engage with what these Irish collectors produced during their tenure as functionaries of the Empire.

In his Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, Ferdinand Mount, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of two dozen works, essays the long 19th century of imperial rule, largely through the life and times of his ancestors — a clan of redoubtable Lowland Scots. The book turns out to be a saga of their to-ing and fro-ing in the 19th century Deccan and Hindustan and in mountainous Chitral. Goaded by a desire to write down “the whole imperial experience”, glory, warts, horrors and all, Mount characterises his labour of love less “a group biography”, more “a human Jungle Book”. The several Bagheeras are the rajas, peshwas and nawabs, as they are increasingly hemmed in by the Company Bahadur’s menagerie, tearful protestations of continued loyalty to the Resident sahib John Low, the great grandfather of the author, notwithstanding.


John Low, subsequently General Sir John, “took an active part in deposing three kings… He deprived a fourth raja, perhaps the grandest of them all, of a large part of his kingdom. He survived three shattering mutinies.” Seventy years of age and in straitened circumstances, he was offered the lucrative sinecure (Rs 90,000 per month) of Military Member of the Supreme Council of India by friend and fellow Scot, Lord Dalhousie, in 1853, which he graced till the end of the Mutiny and Rebellion of 1857-’58. “Yet at no time,” avers Mount, basing himself on Low’s public and personal correspondence, “do you have the feeling that he was spurred by a sense of imperial mission.” “He wanted, if possible, to do his duty… [and] that too was shadowed in doubt and mired in misgiving.”

Between 1771 and 1909, there were never less than 20, sometimes twice as many, of the Lows’ extended family, most of them doing this sort of duty. “All over India … they were busily engaged, … fighting, collecting taxes, dispensing justice, scolding maharajas… for none of them was ever idle — the Lows were not Lowland Scots for nothing,” Mount tells us. And what an enormous amount of labour has gone into this wordy monument to Scotland’s “work in India”! With 600 pages of text, and another 130 pages of notes and references, this quite literally is monumental lay history — a veritable kitab-e-azam of the British empire in India.

One of the central arguments of Mount is that the first half of the 19th century saw the “gradual emergence of grizzled Company colonels into position of political power”. Men like John Malcolm of central India and Malwa, Henry and John Lawrence of Punjab, William Sleeman and James Outram, one of the heroes of the recapture of Lucknow, whose name is still commemorated in Outram Lines next to the stinking ganda nala near Delhi University. And, of course, John Low, an ancestor of the author.

Functioning as British residents to the peshwas, rajas, nizams or nawabs of Poona, Mysore, Hyderabad or Lucknow, they were responsible for “pacifying” the countryside, “for introducing new crops and new methods of cultivation, for trying (but more often failing) to make (land) taxes fairer.” Their principal virtue was “their unwillingness to push things too far” in India. They were opposed not by the locals, but by a different set of British, the “Modernisers” who wished to hurry colonial India into modernity. The result was the conflagration — “more like the spread of an epidemic,” a veritable “contagion” avers Mount — the Mutiny-Ghadar of 1857.

There is, understandably, a good deal here on the irregular and immoral annexation of Awadh. John Low had functioned as British resident at Lucknow, and acquiesced, albeit reluctantly, to the Governor General gobbling the “ripe cherry” that was the kingdom of Awadh, memorably caricatured by Satyajit Ray in Shatranj ke Khilari. This is followed by a standard recounting of the myriad events that constituted 1857, a fast-paced narrative of the loss and recovery of large parts of the Company’s Indian possessions, stories of individual valour and heroism. Thus the 6’2” tall John Nicholson “with dark grey eyes with black pupils which under excitement would dilate like a tiger’s” (here Mount is quoting a source), who led the successful charge at Delhi’s Kashmere Gate, but lost his life to a faceless assailant behind what is now a dilapidated Bengali Club in a gali, not far from where Nirad C Chaudhuri was to write the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian some 90 years later.

“The story of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is, perhaps, the most singular illustration of our great national character ever yet recorded in the annals of our country,” Sir John William Kaye had written in his celebrated History of the Sepoy War, just eight years after the recapture of Delhi. Contrary to that famous quip in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, “What do the English know of their history, for a great deal of it happened elsewhere,” Kaye was intent on teaching the English their overseas history. Ferdinand Mount has done it again in style, a century-and-a-half after Kaye.

The last of the Lows retired in 1905 as commander-in-chief of the Bombay Army, and, on his return, was appointed Keeper of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Among the diadems under his protection was the Koh-i-Noor. “The only part of the ‘brightest jewel in the crown’ that is still in British hands,” writes Mount, as he rests his pen, “is the jewel in the Crown. And the Indians want it back.” A footnote adds the news flash: “As recently as February 2013, David Cameron refused an Indian request to return it to its original home.” May the Koh-i-Noor rest in peace.

Shahid Amin is a retired professor of history. He taught at Delhi University.