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This article is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.

The White Mughals William Dalrymple

The PN Review Lecture: Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival, Manchester

The question I want to ask this evening is a simple one: whether it is ever really possible to cross from one culture to another? To lose completely the identity with which you have been brought up in the face of another perhaps more attractive civilisation?

Certainly, India has a strange way with its conquerors: it welcomes them in, then slowly transforms and seduces them. The Great Mughals, as one historian memorably observed, arrived in India from Central Asia in the sixteenth century as 'ruddy men in boots'; they left it four centuries later 'pale persons in petticoats'. As one can see from a picture of Sir David Ochterlony, English Resident in Delhi around 1815, for a period it looked quite possible that the same might happen to the British. For beneath the familiar story of the British conquest and rule of India, and the imposition of European ways in the heart of Asia, there always lay a far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story: the Indian conquest of the British imagination.

The problem the British Raj faced with figures like Sir David Ochterlony was one that was to confront the colonial authorities over and over again during the Raj. For despite the attempts of the British to impose Western ways on Indians, in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century it was - in some circumstances at least - almost as ...

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