Thursday, March 26, 2020

An Inglorious Battle Steeped in Ignominy

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book, Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History is a meticulous work of exemplary research that painstakingly assembles together the many pieces of the convoluted series of events that marked a turning point which placed the East Company at an advantageous position in a power surge that would eventually lead to the ascent of the British Raj. And to think that it all began when the Mughal ruler, Farrukhsiyar was successfully treated for a swelling in the groin by an East India Company doctor, William Hamilton! As a direct result, the delegation he was a part of was rewarded with a ‘phirmaun’ allowing the white men a firm toehold in the power corridors of ‘Indostan’ which lay trapped in the rotting remains of the formerly great Mughal Empire.
It would be many more decades, before the British fed up with haggling with nawabs who were rebelling against imperial authority and not above disregarding royal edicts especially when it clashed with their own interests, opted for more aggressive policies and direct warfare to ensure that the  Company’s financial interests were protected. And it all went down at the battle of Plassey fought in 1757 between Robert Clive and the reviled nawab Siraj – ud – Daula.
Chakravarti takes his time to introduce the intriguing cast of characters which reads like a who’s who of human folly. There is a begum who was partial to the livers of young men and enforcers who placed erring officials in pits filled with human wastes or forced them to wear leather long drawers filled with live cats. The powerful bankers – Jagat Seths who were so fabulously wealthy and influential, that the nawabs and representatives of the EIC alike kowtowed to them. Yet another begum was so filled with hatred for her nephew who had the lover she shared with her husband killed, she conspired with his enemies to bring about his downfall and was eventually drowned for her trouble. Then there is the general Mir Jafar who betrayed the successor of his benefactor who himself had come to power after deposing his patron’s heir. It is a riveting merry – go – round of misdeeds!
The colourful characters aside, this book offers an in – depth analysis of all the events leading up to and after Plassey with its far ranging consequences. Chakravarti has done a masterly job of sifting through the deluge of extant, diverse records and presenting it in copious detail for the discernment of the reader. This is a plus since it presents a balanced outlook as well as a minus given that the frequent detours into the nature of the sources as well as the credibility of the assorted historians makes for laborious reading. This coupled with the slow pace as well as dense prose devoted to academic arcana detracts from pacing as well as the juiciness of the material itself and can be hard on the extremely limited attention span of  modern readers who are not above tossing such voluminous tomes aside in favour of Netflix. This is a pity because Plassey is a treasure trove for lovers of history with truly tasty titbits for those with the patience to sit tight and sift through the admittedly tedious scholarly chaff for the good stuff.
Plassey happened when greed, corruption, treachery and violence was allowed to rule the day. And as always, it is amazing how the pettiness and spite in human nature gave the impetus to momentous events that changed the course of history. Chakravarti makes it clear that the winner and loser in this saga – Robert Clive and Siraj – ud – Daula were both flawed individuals who were tools of destiny. The latter’s mangled remains were displayed on the back of an elephant while the former amassed a fortune and was feted as a hero but died anyway by his own hand. It makes one wonder… at the very least.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

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