William Dalrymple: The bard of our times
As one of the most ebullient narrative historians of our times, William Dalrymple is amazingly prolific. His new book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan is out next month.
Published by Bloomsbury in India and the UK and by Knopf in the US, the award-winning writer returns with an oeuvre, which he has perfected over the years, that of a masterful retelling of history with a new perspective. Perhaps being an art curator helps. Dalrymple, whose books regularly sell more than 100,000 copies each, is a hawk-eyed observer with a beautiful narrative authority in his works.
In the UAE for the 31st edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), Dalrymple waxes eloquent about his latest book, which harks back to the spectacular first Anglo-Afghan war, when the colonial British invaded Afghanistan.
“This first calamitous entanglement of the British in Afghanistan was an important lesson which seems to have fallen through the cracks,” Dalrymple told Khaleej Times.
Clad in a light coral linen shirt and khaki pants, the Scot’s fascination for chronicling histories from a postcolonial perspective, continues. Digging up a variety of never-used sources from Afghan, Russian, Indian and Pakistani archives, including a series of previously untranslated epic poems, Dalrymple has weaved yet another epic with the Return of a King.
Dalrymple studied at Cambridge before embarking upon what was going to be a lifelong quest for India. He wrote the Age of Kali touching upon controversial subjects such as Sati, the caste wars and India’s political corruption. The best-selling classic, In Xanadu, was followed by an intimate investigation of Delhi in the City of Djinns. Dalrymple painted an intimate relationship between the British and Indian empire in his widely acclaimed historical accounts of the Mughal period — White Mughals and The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty. His travels across Asia and the Middle East have produced some of the finest travel writings in recent times. In books such as From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, Dalrymple focuses majorly on his interactions with the Middle East.
“Narrative history is different. It is not historical fiction. I do borrow from the technique of the novel. For instance in the way you split the work up or how you end the chapter on a cliff-hanger but in the end it depends upon how you organise your material. It is very important not to make any of it up,” says Dalrymple.
Having lived and produced many of his major works in India, the author feels that he finds it surprising that the country did not produce a great body of literature before the Sultan period. “India has had a tenuous relationship with history, which is slightly baffling,” Dalrymple adds. It is in this context that his texts operate, trying to bridge the gap somewhat while touching upon imperialism and its legacies.
As a writer, Dalrymple has been hugely influenced by a large body of work. “I admire Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin who wrote In Patagonia (a text whose title bears an intertextual relationship to Dalrymple’s In Xanadu) a great deal,” Dalrymple confides. Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game is a perennial favourite along with Steven Runciman’s Fall of the Constantinople which was a direct inspiration for The Last Mughal. “I love Robert Byron. The Road to Oxiana was a masterpiece and got me intrigued about my travels in this region,” a wistful Dalrymple notes.
Known for his candour, Dalrymple makes no bones about his views on V. S. Naipual and the latest controversy surrounding the Nobel laureate in India where he was roundly criticised by the eminent playwright Girish Karnad. “Naipaul is not a historian and he is very ill informed. There is no doubting his prestige as a novelist but his work excludes a great deal of the history of arts. I would say with regards to his views on the Taj Mahal, for instance, everything that Naipaul says is basically wrong,” Dalrymple says matter-of-factly.
Chutzpah apart, there is no denying the fact that Dalrymple has a touch of exotic. His craft is very important because of the ways in which all of its components function together. His body of work shifts between genres, modes and media. He seems to easily don the role of a narrative historian, art curator, journalist, broadcaster, critic and director of the Jaipur Literary Festival, one of the largest lit-fests in the Asia-Pacific. Over Turkish coffee, with Dalrymple chortling every now and then, it becomes quite obvious why the affable writer is hailed as someone who thrives on illuminating the points at which seemingly antagonistic cultures intersect.
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