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I'm very happy to return to Emirates Litfest: Dalrymple

Samhita Chakraborty
Filed on July 2, 2021
Wiiliam Dalrymple

Historian and writer William Dalrymple on an upcoming book that, in part, navigates the Gulf-India maritime trade route of yore


Time and venue matter when you are meeting William Dalrymple. I don’t even dare squeak more than a “hello” or a “goodbye” when I see him at the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which he is a co-director. But at other literary festivals, he is relaxed, jovial and the life of the party in the evenings. Once, at a festival in Bhutan, he gave me the same interview twice over dinner, because the first time my recorder had malfunctioned. But my best experience was visiting him at his farm in Mehrauli, on the outskirts of Delhi, where he lives 10 months of the year.

This time, I caught up with the bestselling historian and author over Zoom from his home in the UK, where he usually spends his summers. There are “lots of little projects bubbling,” he says. He’s just become a Fellow at the Bodleian Library (at the University of Oxford), there’s a new publication, a book being written and a photo exhibition being planned. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How’s London? Have you been there since the first lockdown?

It’s a grim, miserable day in London (smiles and shakes his head). No, I’ve been surfing between lockdowns. After the initial lockdown in Delhi, I managed to get to London just as they were opening up, then managed to get out of London just as it was closing down, went to Italy, then made the mistake of coming back to London in December and got Covid — thankfully nothing very serious. Then to India, when it was opening up, on to Sri Lanka, and now back to London just as it’s reopening again.

Unlike most of us, you’ve managed to travel quite a bit…

Yes, but it’s driven by my need to travel for my book. Some people have jobs that can avoid any travel but if you are a travel writer and a photographer, it’s very difficult. I have to research my book. I’ve got various things going at the moment: The Company Quartet came out, I’ve been researching my new book, and I’ve got a big photographic exhibition opening in London and then, in the autumn, in Delhi.

Tell us about The Company Quartet. Surely it isn’t four books in one? Like your books aren’t fat enough already…

Yes, yes, those books are not light (laughs). My publishers told me that the release of The Company Quartet was delayed by a few weeks because the books got stuck in the Suez Canal [the six-day blockage in March 2021]. One of my friends quipped, did it cause the jam? (Laughs out loud). The Quartet is the story of the East India Company in four volumes, it’s a boxset. The idea is that these four books tell a unified story of the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Company.

There is, I believe, a right order to read them?

They weren’t written in chronological order but they can now be read in order. The first volume is my last book, The Anarchy, which tells of the formation of the Company in 1599, the same year that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet in London. It’s an extraordinary thought that these two things were born together in the same city, just miles apart! It takes the story up to 1802, with the Company conquests of Delhi, and its effective takeover of the Mughal throne, with the defeat of the Marathas.

Volume 2 is White Mughals, from 1795 to 1835. That tells the story of one family from both sides of the divide. James Achilles

Kirkpatrick, a Scotsman who fell in love with Khair-un-Nissa Begum, who was an ethnic Persian Hyderabadi. You move from the great high politics of The Anarchy down to the micro — one family buffeted between growing racism, growing imperialism, the different forces competing for power in the Deccan, the

Marathas, Tipu Sultan, the Hyderabadis, and the two companies, French and English. This book has a lot more social history, the details of human lives.

The third volume, The Return Of A King, opens four years later, in 1839, with the Company’s invasion of Afghanistan, which was their maximum moment of expansion. That ends in terrific hubris because the Afghans rise up against the Company, and only one man, Dr William Brydon — at least that’s the legend — makes it back from the war. It is a terrific catastrophe when an entire army is destroyed.

The final volume, The Last Mughal, follows from that. It’s the story of 1857, told through the prism of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and that takes us up to the dissolution of the Company in 1858 and the creation of the Raj. So, it’s a complete story and it seemed very sensible to package it back into chronological order.

There’s another reason for doing this. It was very much a joint venture, with my wonderful translator of Persian, Bruce Wannell. Bruce was a lot more than my translator. He was my guide, sternest critic, questioning every sentence of the quartet with a spider handwriting! He died of cancer last year. And, in a sense, the door to Narnia closed.

Bruce allowed me to reach what so many academics have not been able to reach because they simply don’t have the language or the epigraphic skills to access all these extraordinary Mughal resources, often written in very difficult handwriting. It takes a real specialist to read them: they’re in an Indian Persian, heavily flecked with Urdu, Pashto and occasionally Hindi and Sanskrit. So, I was very lucky.

We just found, to our amazement, there wasn’t just one or two sources, two whole libraries full of astonishing Persian language sources which no one had touched, ever! Bruce was the third member of our marriage, he was living in our house on and off for 20 years. It will not be possible to do again what we did together.

When you wrote White Mughals some 20 years back, did you know you’d end up writing a quartet?

You know, I did. But it wasn’t going to be this quartet. I was planning a Mughal quartet initially, working backwards. I am very, very glad that did not happen, because everyone knows that story. It’s nothing like the level of fresh, virgin territory you get in the 18th century, when there’s been so little work. It was terribly exciting to be able to take this major slice of colonial history and retell it, and find thousands of new sources, not just a few.

Since you started writing White Mughals, you’ve discovered very interesting bits of your ancestry. Do tell...

When I first came to India, I was vaguely aware there were connections in my family to India. I knew the name Prinsep and a vague sensation that my family had been in India, as many Scots had been. Once I arrived, all these references kept popping up. I’d pass a tomb [dedicated] to Sam Dalrymple in Madras; in Calcutta, there was the Prinsep Ghat, named after James Prinsep, my great-great uncle.

Over the course of the years, I learnt that our family was a classic East India Company family. It was never the top elites, the Lords, who took the risk of coming out to India. Those kids who went to India, two-thirds didn’t come back. Yes, many did come back, very rich, having looted India, but two-thirds died. It was always the class of people who were desperate enough to sacrifice two or three sons [to India], which was the minor gentry. That was very much my family. Generation after generation, younger sons came out to India, and died in India, many of them in Calcutta. And as was the norm at that time, they married Bengalis. I have a Bengali great-great grandmother from Chandernagore, who was Bengali-French.

Also, from a separate bit of the family, in Hyderabad, there’s genuine Mughal blood. James Dalrymple, who appears in White Mughals, was married to Moti Begum, who was the sister of Noor Jahan. So proper, mainline Mughal blood. And I had absolutely no idea at all when I started!

So, why did you come to India? And what made you stay?

When I came to India in 1984, I had actually wanted to go to Iraq (but Saddam Hussein closed the British School of Archaeology). I loved it! I’d never really been anywhere, I was very untravelled. I loved history. All my childhood I’d been looking around churches and sculptures, and had published articles in the local history magazine on Anglo-Saxon and Viking art even at the age of 14.

The sensation of arriving in Delhi and seeing the tombs on the roundabouts and walking my first morning around Humayun’s tomb and the Qutub Minar… all that just dazzled and boggled me. I was on a gap year, I just backpacked around, taught history for a while in Dehradun, and by the time I left, nine months later, to go to Cambridge, I knew I was going to come straight back. I even had a conception of writing a book on Delhi by that time, which turned out to be City of Djinns. I haven’t left since, I am still spending most of the year there.

Tell us about your life on the farm in Delhi…

The farm (in Mehrauli, on the outskirts of Delhi) is lovely, very self-sufficient for most of the year. We have honey from our own bees, milk from our goats, meat from the goats, a big vegetable garden, fruits. It works very well for me. I have very few other calls on my time other than the Jaipur Literature Festival. I can really immerse myself in work there, which is a great privilege. When I talk to my friends, many other writers are forced by wish or by necessity to teach. I have a busy lecturing schedule but I don’t have to mark exams or get involved in departmental administration, which other historians end up doing. And I am making great progress on the next project, which is a whole new world for me.

Yes, tell us about that. You’re travelling way back in time…

My new book is called The Golden Road. It’s the story of the diffusion of Indian culture out of India from the time of Ashoka till about the 11th century.

There are three parts to the story. One is the story of Buddhism and the travel of Buddhism from Bihar — well, Lumbini originally, via Bihar — to Baghdad, and finally it becoming the state religion of China under Empress Wu Zetian in the 660s. This brings in a whole lot of Buddhist Indian monks and teachers. With Buddhism comes not just religion but cosmology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, geography, a whole body of Indic learning which is embedded into Buddhism along with ideas of karma and so on. As well as Indic art, sculpture, aesthetics, paintings.

Part 2 is the story of Hinduism and Sanskrit and that body of Indic knowledge spreading to Suvarnabhumi, to Southeast Asia, culminating in the building of Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple in the world in Cambodia, not in India. You can see it in the place names. From ‘Kandahar’, Sanskrit ‘Gandhara’, to ‘Singapore’, Sanskrit ‘Singapura’, this vast geographical area all adopt Sanskrit as the major language.

This whole body of Indic knowledge became common across the whole of Southeast Asia, symbolised by the popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the fact that you get Ayodhyas all over Southeast Asia. The national airline of Indonesia is still called Garuda. Indians are still surprised when they go to Angkor Wat and see the churning of the ocean (laughs).

The third part is the story of Indian mathematics and astronomy, particularly its progression westwards. First to Baghdad and then on to Europe. How did the numbers originally used on Ashoka monuments end up in Baghdad? How did Indic numerals, in a slightly modulated form, become Arabic numerals, as they are called in the West today?

The interesting task here is to get the balance right: it wasn’t colonisation but it was a major cultural influence. How do you say that without sounding like a sort of WhatsApp nationalist?

While there are whole libraries on any of these subjects, I don’t know of any one book that brings the whole thing together.

You’ve been to these parts several times, including the Emirates Airline Festival of the Literature in Dubai…

I loved the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I had a great time! No other festival anywhere in the world where you can put up in such posh, snazzy hotels and get such delicious Middle Eastern food in room service (chuckles). I’m always very happy to accept any invitation to their literary festival.

I’m an art historian by training and, when I am in this region, I love the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, I spend a lot of time there. Also, I’m very excited by the Louvre of Abu Dhabi. Those are two places I love to visit…

This next book is going to have the most relevance in Dubai. So much is written about the land routes, the silk route, but the maritime trade route, which Dubai was very much a part of, and the whole story from Antiquity how Roman boats passing through the Gulf to trade with Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and the intense ancient links between Egypt and India which Dubai and Socotra were stopping points… parts of this book will deal with that.

Meanwhile, my son Sam is writing about the later period of how Dubai was governed from Calcutta and was very much a part of the Raj and used the rupee. It’s a book called Five Partitions. Obviously, the great Partition of 1947 is the main focus but it also tells the story of all these other regions that were originally controlled by the Raj — Somalia, Yemen, Oman, Burma. Dubai will be very much a part of his book.

Have you been watching any television shows?

During lockdown in Delhi last year, like everybody else, Netflix dominated our lives. But my No 1 recommendation is quite difficult to get in some places. Even if you have to go back to the old technology of DVDs, you must do so. It’s called Babylon Berlin, a fabulous series set in Weimar, Germany.

What’s your favourite pastime?

I am lucky. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow and never have to work again, I don’t think I would change my life in any way! I like to read, I like to travel, I like to photograph… I’d probably spend a bit more time on a sunbed or walking in the mountains but it would not be much different from this life. That’s the dream of any author: you’re doing for work what you would normally do for pleasure.

The hard bit is at the end of three or four years of research and travelling, you have to buckle down and write the book (laughs out loud). That ominous feeling of that day getting closer and closer… finally that moment comes, that morning when you have to actually begin putting pen to paper. But if you’ve done your work, if it’s all organised in your head [I work with old-fashioned card indexes], then it should be a matter of six months. But if you get confused and go down some wrong path, it can take a year. And that is work — early to rise, late to bed, not much fun. Each time you think, am I going to be found out finally? Is this going to wreck my reputation? No one will ever want to read me again… never gets any easier.

The fun bit is what I am doing now — the reading, the travelling. The other fun bit is the book tours when the book is done… it’s the actual writing that feels like real work.

I am longing to get back to Cambodia, Indonesia and China. I’ve had both my jabs… I’ve nearly spent all my advance, and I still haven’t seen certain places in order to write the book properly.

I am hoping to see at least two places before I go completely bankrupt. My one financial hope is my photographic exhibition that’s coming up from July 1 at Grosvenor Gallery in London.

Please tell your readers that everything will be online, please buy the photographs! They’ll be supporting the writing of the final phase of this book, it’ll be a crowdfunding effort (laughs).

(Samhita Chakraborty is a communications professional based in Kolkata, India. She tweets at @samhita26)





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