A new book by William Dalrymple is always something of an event. The Anarchy doesn’t disappoint: readable, informative, full of color. Dalrymple lets the protagonists speak for themselves as much as possible, protagonists which thankfully, but not surprisingly given the author, include Indians as much as Europeans.
On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.
It may come as a surprise to Indians, although perhaps it should not, that were colonizers who were less than comfortable with the entire project of colonization. With the advantage of hindsight, and the availability of archives, the new writing about the empire has begun to disrupt the boundaries the colonized and the colonizers as mutually exclusive categories. One new book in this vein is Kief Hillsbery’s The Tiger and the Ruby: A Journey to the Other Side of British India, the account of a clerk who came to Calcutta to make a career but soon sabotaged it by getting himself transferred to a provincial city, and later on disappeared from India but did not return to England.
Bandes dessinées are a francophone tradition; to call them “comic books” is do to them a disservice. The English term “graphic novel” isn’t quite right either, since a bande dessinée might, as is this one, be non-fiction; and while the artwork in contemporary English-language comics is not as dire as it once was, the emphasis is, as the term implies, as often as not on “graphics” rather than work in traditional media.