Faces | William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is a Scottish historian, writer, art historian and curator, as well as a prominent broadcaster and critic. He’s best known for his work on Indian history, having won laurels for his books The City of Djinns, The Last Mughal, Nine Lives, Return of a King, Koh-i-Noor (which is most recent book). He is a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge and in 2012 was appointed a Whitney J. Oates Visiting Fellow in the Humanities by Princeton University. In the Spring of 2015 he was appointed the OP Jindal Distinguished Lecturer at Brown University. He likes to travel and walk passionately. In summers, he lives in London and in winters, he comes to Delhi, his most beloved city, to stay at his farmhouse in Mehrauli. Visit his website to know more!

Before we begin, how would you like to be addressed?

Sir, Lord, Earl whatever you like. I’m more comfortable with Will.

You have explored India and Indian history more than any average Indian perhaps. So, is there one word that defines India for you?

No, India is far too complicated to be defined by even a thousand words. The whole joy of India is its complexity, diversity and massiveness. One word cannot define it.

In your recent book The Return of a King you drew parallels between the present NATO forces and the British campaign into Afghanistan in the 1840’s. In light of this, do you believe that history is cyclical or linear?

I believe history never repeats itself exactly, but it tends to follow the same fault lines. So, you do find incidents like the Allied Campaign in Afghanistan resembling the disastrous British Campaign in 1839 right down to the fact that the same family was being put on the throne again. It was Shah Shuja al-Mulk Durrani then and now it’s his descendant Hamid Karzai. In fact, the same tribes’ that is the Durranis’ ancestral enemy, the Ghilzais are now heading the Taliban. Even the enemies have remained the same through time. It’s exactly the same conflict but in a different form. But history never repeats itself exactly, so you can’t look to history as a crystal ball to help predict the future, but you can certainly use it to help understand the present.

In your book City of Djinns you have stated that there have been 8 Delhis through time and each time Delhi was doomed to be destroyed. Wouldn’t this run contrary to the above statement?

Well, historically, you can count as many phases of Delhi as you want to. Some see 9, some see 8 and some see as many as 21. It’s just like Jerusalem that way. Such cities seem to keep getting destroyed over and over very violently. India now has nuclear arms and one can hope that such destruction may never happen again. I, for one, am invested in ensuring that it doesn’t!

I’m curious as to your relationship with the truth. Historians are known to have had fascinating conversations about the idea of truth. How would you define the ‘truth’?

I am a writer of non-fiction. As a historian and journalist I believe it is very important to make this distinction. It is absolutely fine to write fiction, but you must declare it at the very beginning. When you write non-fiction, it is necessary to justify every statement that you make and that’s one of the reasons why my books have a hundred pages of footnotes at the back. You make a statement and lay out all the evidence substantiating it. It is my goal to make sure that my books read out like novels. I wish to give the level of detail and narrative density so that it becomes instantly believable. These are 5 year projects and each one is like a PhD dissertation. This is where I feel it is necessary to distinguish fiction from non-fiction. Both have their place. Both have their truths, but the truth of non-fiction is very different. It is what happened as you perceive it as opposed to fiction that is an artful invention.

Don’t you believe that the power/narrative in fiction often trumps the truth in non-fiction?

I personally don’t think so. I love non-fiction. I am a writer of non-fiction. It’s true that the greatest fiction has immense power. Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Dickens, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, the list goes on. But to get to those pinnacles of brilliance there are so many foothills on the way of novels one can’t quite believe. However, for non-fiction, even in a badly written one, there is always a point in reading it. You learn something that had happened, something you didn’t know. There is nothing more pointless than a bad novel. It’s something imagined unskilfully. A bad novel is an utterly useless object.

So, you never plan on moving onto fiction?

Although I’ve done different forms of non-fiction such as history and journalism I’m clearly and consciously a nonfiction writer so I guess my answer would be no.

Not even historical fiction?

I like historical fiction in cinemas. I like watching Gladiator or something like that. However in book forms, I constantly want to know what actually happened.

What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Padmavati? How do you as a historian look at it?

Well, this is a perfect example of why historical fiction can be irritating. No one actually knows if this woman existed or if she was the truth of a 14th century poet. There is no historical evidence whether this woman existed. We know Allaudin Khilji existed. He conquered Ranthambore and then marched deeper into Rajasthan but all the evidence seems to be that he was like any other king of his period. He wanted to conquer lands so he could reward his followers and become greater. It’s not even clear whether he was heterosexual!

Do you think that the power of historical fiction is easily adapted by the people?

My entire career is focused around making history more accessible, more readable. There are many ways to write a history book. One of the odd things in this country is that it has such a fantastic history and yet its historians tend to write it for each other. Academicians writing for other academicians! One of the reasons myths flourish is because Indian historians write so badly and so boringly that the only way someone can access the truth is through movies or novels which often do not give the raison d’ etre behind the stories.

Coming to myths and history, in your books we come across court scholars who tend to use very flowery language and shower praises upon the king. Then you have certain foreign travellers who are very critical of the Mughal period. How do you reconcile the two?

As a writer of history you tend to line up your sources the same way a judge would line up the witnesses. Just the way a judge discounts one witness as he is a friend of the accused or another witness who is on the pay of the prosecution, the historian must also critically evaluate the veracity. And then comes a star witness, who has no leanings and who gives absolutely accurate information. You have the court flatterer who is paid by the King. You have the enemy chronicler who is paid to say nasty things. Then you have some independent witness who writes something and everything is illuminated. You never take anything as the truth and constantly evaluate its veracity. You then deduce what could have happened and give each source its due credence.

As a follow up to that, you have often spoken about your fascination with oral traditions and poetry. You went around with a lot of fakirs and musicians whilst working on your book Nine Lives. How does that work? With someone who is so immersed in the written world, does the oral tradition appeal to you?

What I was looking for when I wrote Nine Lives were the people who were living lives off the mainstream, off the modern India I live in, be it the Bauls of Bengal, the Jain nuns of Kerala or the Pabuji ki Phad Bhopas of Rajasthan. These are people who have preserved such extraordinary traditions. Of course some of the Baul music is written down and some of the fakirs sing Kabir dohas that are written as well as oral.

But the past is oral and not written down right?

I am nevertheless amazed by it. In Bhopa tradition, you big epics are being memorised often by kids in their teens. These kids are learning stanzas by heart day after day and week after week. At the end of it they can recite hundreds and thousands of these stanzas! Anyone who comes through normal literate education simply cannot do it. In some ways the brain loses the capacity for orality when it learns literacy. This was found out by Komal Kathari very clearly when one of his informants who knew several epics by heart got tired of recording it and sent him to night school to learn so he could record it himself. I think the man was Lekha. Anyway, he became literate and was in tears checking his notes before giving a performance!

Dalrymple’s farmhouse in Mehrauli, Delhi.

Why Delhi out of all the cities?

Well there are moments during the ‘air-pocalypse’ where even I debate this decision. But, I do love this city. I do so love it. It’s a wonderful place and it has got a wonderful history. It has got a vibrant culture which was not the case when I moved here in the 80’s. Back then this was a sarkari town and only events in the India International Centre happened. It has moved from being an Indian Washington to an Indian NY. You could be Bengali, Himachali, Tamilian or from across the border, from say Lahore, you have all cultures blending in here and that’s just great.

You have talked about your idea of happiness. You say you love walking. Walking comes from the word ‘sauntering’ which is sans and terre which means ‘without any connection to one particular land’, ‘not in connection to any particular land’ which also means not being at home but being at home everywhere. So, given your roots in Scotland and that you have spent most of your life in India, is there a particular reason that walking appeals to you so much?

The thing about happiness is that it’s something you experience rather than analyse. Some people like hanging out at train stations and watching the trains go by. Some people like hanging out at the zoo, some like the pubs. Every human has their own thing that works for them. Some of my happiest moments have been trekking in the Himalayas, discovering some new valley, waking up to a beautiful scenery. The other thing that makes me happy is finishing a book rather than writing it! The other is music.

Tell us what you like in music. Any one artist you would pick?

I have varying tastes. I like different artists. Depends on the time of the day. On a nice, perfect, sunny Delhi winter morning day I would put on some French Chamber Music. By lunchtime it’s Wagner thundering around. By the evening it’s some lovely American cell music or Jazz.


Could you tell us more about your childhood and what inspired you to become a historian? Also, what made you specialise in Indian history in particular?

I was always greatly interested in history. It’s partly genetic as my father was a big history buff himself and as I grew up in Scotland, my Scottish nanny used to read me Tales of Scottish Keeps and Castles which was a famous children’s book. Two of my brothers before me got into Oxford to read History. There was a particularly good history teacher in the school that I went to. So, there are many influences from different places. It is what I live and it combines with all my other loves such as music, travelling, reading and walking. I’m currently in the middle of a book about the East India Company and I get irritated if anything comes in the way of my time reading about it. How on the earth did a corporation take on the mighty Mughal Empire? It’s an extraordinary story! Everything else feels like a distraction from that. In the same way you could lose yourself in a novel. When you read War and Peace, you are there in the Napoleonic Wars and you are there in the ball in St. Petersburg, Russia. So, with history you can find yourself living consciously 200 hundred years ago and every new source adds to the picture.

You seem to be a big fan of Tolstoy as you have referred to him quite a few times.

He’s my favourite!

Who were your other favourites as you were growing up?

Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev for the Russians. I’m also a fan of modern American writers such as Hemingway, McCarthy, Truman and Capote.

Hemingway was someone who made his sentence short whereas Tolstoy on the other hand loved to make his sentences long and as detailed as possible.

No one was a fan of Tolstoy for his writing. He was not a stylist. Apparently in Russia the prose does shimmer in the way Turgenev’s does. I like prose and my favourite writer in English would be a stylist like Truman Capote. Of non-fiction the great travel writers like Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Redmond O’ Hanlon and Robert Byron.

As you have travelled quite a lot, what is that one human trait that you find common across the globe across all civilizations?

One of the things you learn from travel and history is that humanity is literally one big family. We all come from a single hominid somewhere in Africa! Therefore there is so much across centuries that we can learn from. What is so interesting about travel is the different sights you see. From a very traditionally dressed oracle in the Himalayas to reading about the Khiljis and some fantastic atrocity takes place. Incredibly this is done by someone with the same genetic programming as us. In the evolutionary sense there is no difference between us. We are all the same and that’s that!

This interview was done by Prerna Anilkumar, Aniket Singh Charan and Sujoy Sur of Catharsis Magazine.


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