by William Dalrymple
580pp, HarperCollins, £20
In 1616, when Sir Thomas Roe arrived in Agra, India, as the first accredited English ambassador to the Mughal empire, he probably did not expect the small humiliations he would face over the next three years.
His ruler in England, King James I, who wanted a formal trade treaty with the Mughal emperor Jahangir, had told him to be "careful of the preservation of our honour and dignity". But Roe struggled to keep the English flag aloft at the brilliantly adorned Mughal court, where even his only European rival, the Portuguese ambassador, seemed grander than he.
He managed to avoid the bowing and scraping expected of ambassadors, but he felt acutely the shabbiness of the gifts he had brought from England for the aesthete Jahangir; and he could not entirely overcome Jahangir's scepticism about a supposedly great English king who concerned himself with such petty things as trade.
Perhaps Roe shouldn't have worried so much. In retrospect, it is Jahangir who seems a victim of imperial hubris while Roe emerges as a far-sighted diplomat of an emerging economic and military power. Roe failed to get a formal treaty out of Jahangir. But he did secure a toehold for the East India Company on the western coast of India. Over the next 150 years, traders from Britain turned into soldiers and steadily overcame their Portuguese, French and Dutch rivals, even as the Mughal empire, weakened by endless wars and invasions, slowly imploded into independent states.
Loss of territory and influence diminished Mughal emperors in Delhi into pathetic figureheads as early as the mid-18th century. The British gave them generous pensions and allowed them to hold shows of pomp and ceremony periodically - despite their infirmity, they retained, in British eyes, the symbolic value of belonging to India's oldest and most prestigious ruling dynasty.
Neither Jahangir nor Roe could have foreseen the formal end of the Mughal empire, which finally came during the suppression of the Mutiny in 1858, long after the British conquest of India was complete, when an English soldier executed the sons of the rebellious, and - as it turned out - last Mughal emperor, and left their corpses to rot in the streets of Delhi.
White Mughals opens in the last years of the 18th century, when the British were expanding inland after consolidating their presence in the coastal "presidencies" of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. With Napoleon in Egypt, and threatening to travel eastwards, the French were still a nuisance. However, the major threats to the British in India were the Indian states that had grown culturally and politically vigorous at the expense of a declining Mughal empire. Dalrymple details brilliantly the intrigues through which the British extended their influence over the state of Hyderabad, pacified the Marathas in western India, and undermined the power of Tipu Sultan in the south.
But this is only the political background to the "far more intriguing and still largely unwritten story" Dalrymple wishes to alert us to: "the Indian conquest of the European imagination". At the heart of his colourfully and diversely populated book is a poignant story of how General James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident at Hyderabad, went native.
Dalrymple came across Kirkpatrick's story while visiting Hyderabad five years ago. His obsession with this somewhat obscure figure grew as he searched through the records at the India Office Library, and commissioned translations of Persian documents in Hyderabad.
Kirkpatrick seemed different from the other British representatives at upcountry Indian courts who, released from the drab white ghettos of the British presidency towns, embraced keenly the opulent Indo-Persian style of the ruling classes they were in the process of supplanting. In Dalrymple's eyes, Kirkpatrick attempted something riskier: he not only converted to Islam and married Khair un-Nissa, a young girl - a "minor" in contemporary terms - from a Muslim aristocratic family, but also began to question the more brazenly imperialist policies of his bosses.
Dalrymple is not new to what he calls "the unexpected and unplanned minglings of peoples and cultures and ideas". His previous books described his travels through the crossroads - Central Asia, India and the Middle East - where several civilisations, in the days before nation-states, met and flourished. Their brisk, exuberant love of the exotic and the eccentric marked them as profoundly English travel books, part of a romantic tradition defined by Robert Byron, Peter Fleming and Bruce Chatwin.
White Mughals marks a fruitful break from a genre that seems increasingly an inadequate tool to understand a world growing ever more complex. The past becomes much more than an architectural curiosity, as Dalrymple attempts in this technically ambitious book the difficult job of carving a human narrative out of the intransigent mass of untouched archival material: the letters of Kirkpatrick and other British officials, the Persian chronicles of the time. There is a scholarly seriousness here; also, a moral passion.
Writing after September 11 2001, Dalrymple is naturally keen to attack the more shaky generalisations that underpin the much derided but oddly resilient theory of the "clash of civilisations". He also wishes to defend the early British Indophiles from the often vulgar accusation of "Orientalism". This leads him to a few generalisations of his own. He argues that "during the period 1770 to 1830, there was wholesale interracial sexual exploration and surprisingly widespread cultural assimilation and hybridity". He goes on to assert that "virtually all Englishmen in India at this period Indianised themselves to some extent".
The British practice of acquiring Indian wives and maintaining harems does offer a somewhat bracing contrast to the bleak racial segregation of the Victorian 19th century. But it would still not have amounted to "wholesale interracial sexual exploration" if the nubile women on the "fishing fleet" from England had been allowed to cast their net over eligible young Indian men; and it would only have been truly widespread if it had occurred outside the enclaves of elite Indo-Persian culture in which a few fortune-hunters from Britain found themselves luxuriating in the late 18th century.
There remains a question, too, as to how many Indian women actually chose to become the wives and mistresses of British men. Dalrymple seems inclined to think that the women relatives of Khair un-Nissa cannily arranged her affair and marriage with Kirkpatrick in an attempt to further their family's influence in Hyderabad. This may be true, and perhaps, as Dalrymple argues, should be seen as part of the social mores of aristocratic Muslim women. It certainly clears Kirkpatrick of the charge of abusing his great power. But we don't know what Khair un-Nissa thought of being used as a pawn in imperial intrigues, or how she saw her life, which turned out to be short and hard.
Kirkpatrick himself didn't have it easy. The drama of much of his time in India derives from the resistance he faced from his British peers. He chose, it seems from Dalrymple's account, the wrong time to go native, when the imperial conquerors and administrators from Britain, who increasingly replaced the old-style traders and soldiers, were seeking a new, hard basis for British power in India. The old close relations with Indians were supplanted by a policy of racial exclusion and arrogance. Indian cultures and religions had few admirers among the new British generation of evangelists and utilitarians who sought to impose upon India the radical reforms they could only fitfully carry out in Britain.
This period of political and cultural upheaval, during which the British tightened their stranglehold over India, had many victims, British as well as Indian. We don't hear much of them, for their dreams of personal happiness were destined to remain unsung in histories that celebrate imperial and anti-imperial victories. Kirkpatrick was one of them: a "superfluous man" of late 18th-century India. This capacious book is never more engaging than when, spurning polemic and theory, Dalrymple describes, with a novelist's compassion, the tragic costs of his rebellion.
· Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics (Picador), The Guardian.