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The White Sahib, Bibidom and their Offspring

As a long time fan of historical romance, especially stories set in the Regency era, I was used to a character set that was almost wholly white and came from the genteel sections of society. Then one fine day, a friend gifted me William Dalrymple's 'White Mughals" to read. It is a compelling saga of a love affair between Captain James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident at the court of Nawab of Hyderabad and Khair-un-Nissa, a young royal brought up in strict Muslim household.

He arrived in Hyderabad in 1795. His role as resident was similar to the role of an ambassador in today's political echelons. As such his position was sensitive and the East India company depended upon his good relations with the Nawab and his ministers to further their cause in face of French influence.

Yet Kirkpatrick would risk everything when he fell in love with Khair, going so far as to convert to Islam to marry his beloved. He would have two beautiful children with his wife, a son and a daughter. What is more, his was not a solitary case of interracial marriage. In the melting pot of 18th century Indian politics, there were other Englishmen important to the East India Company who had taken Indian wives or mistresses and had large families.

In fact, long before English ladies discovered the charms of a privileged life-style in colonial India, English soldiers, merchants and bureaucrats had been arriving at Indian shores for long, if lonely tenures in warm climes.

This was a time before travel to India was easy, and through the late 17th and 18th centuries the white sahibs found pleasure and built families with Indian mistresses and wives. Many of these women were simple courtesans, others how ever came from well-to-do families and were given in marriage as a way of making an alliance with a white man of some power. This was the institution of 'Bibidom' (from the word Bibi or wife in hindostani), an institution the earliest memsahibs in India were warned about and the the politico-religious powers would do much to banish in the 19th century.

The case of Captain James Kirkpatrick stood out though, because the relationship happened at a time when the East India Company was formalizing its notion of imperialism. On 18th May 1798, Lord Richard Wellesley took over as Governor-General of India. He was an imperialist of the worst kind. His singular agenda was the subjugation of Indians in favour of East India Company's trade interests. He frowned upon Anglo-Indian liaisons. His policies and active victimization of those who indulged in such relations turned the social atmosphere ugly.

Kirkpatrick would be summoned to Calcutta and reprimanded by the new Governor-General. He would be asked to give up his Indian family. He had to eventually send his children to England. Even as he himself lay ill, he was once again summoned to Calcutta to report to a new Governor-General. He would never see his children and his wife again. He died in Calcutta on October 15, 1805.

But the tragedy of James Kirkpatrick and his beloved Khair lay not just in the short-lived togetherness of the couple, it also lay in the fate that befell their beloved children. Five and three years of age, when the son and daughter left India, they were baptized upon arrival in England and given the names William George Kirkpatrick and Katherine Aurora "Kitty" Kirkpatrick. They lost complete touch with the culture and religion of their mother and were absorbed by the Regency society.

Kitty Kirkpatrick would later become famous as a muse of Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who would immortalize her in his novel Sartur Resartus.

Kitty's story touched me with its loss of moorings from the socio-cultural framework within which she was born. She must have felt a terrible identity crisis for she had acute memories of her mother and home, as evidenced by the letters she wrote to her Indian grand-mother later in life.

The life of children of such mixed-parentage is an unexplored facet of Regency and Victorian societies. It makes for fascinating reading and research. It is such a conflicted personality that I have tried to portray with Edward Caswell, the hero of 'The Promise of Love'. You can read the story in the 'Seasonal Shenanigans' anthology, available worldwide starting December 7, 2017.

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