The celebrated British writer-historian William Dalrymple in conversation with Kitaab Interview Editor Debotri Dhar
It is an interview like none other. The celebrated British writer-historian William Dalrymple, author of several critically acclaimed books like In Xanadu, City of Djinns, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The Last Mughal, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, winner of several literary awards, and co-organizer of the wildly successful Jaipur Literature Festival that brings local and global writers to India every year, is in Delhi. In his Mehrauli farmhouse, to be precise, walking his pie-dog “whose favorite thing in the world is to look out for speeding cars and run into them.”
I am in Ohio, in a not-necessarily Wodehousian town called Wooster, where I’m teaching at a liberal arts college this year. Technology is not among my strongest suits and I have failed, hopelessly, in setting up the third party application that would have allowed me to record this interview via Skype. I cannot see him; I can only hear, and we both have distinct accents. Outside it is snowing heavily, humped white rocks everywhere, shivering trees twisted like ribs.
I strain to hear him, across ten thousand miles, over a temperamental telephone line. When I can, I am so enamored of his words and the magic he weaves that I almost forget to take notes. He laughs, and takes it all in his stride. Excerpts:
The world describes you as a writer, a historian, a broadcaster, an art critic, a mystic. How would you describe yourself?
William Dalrymple: Well, writer covers what I do in six letters.
You’ve lived many lives, perhaps many loves, but the one love that shines through much of your work is your love for India…
Ah, India. I’ve never quite gone the whole way. I haven’t committed to the relationship (with India) completely or given up my British identity; I’m still a British citizen and have property there. So the relationship remains an affair rather than a marriage. Like any affair, it has its ups and downs. Some days I knock my head against the wall and wonder why I haven’t taken a new lover. I’ll probably die in her arms. India can be frustrating, demanding, difficult…but is never, ever boring. She has accommodated herself to me, provided me with understanding, inspiration, passion.
Past life… Well, our families have long standing connections with India. A great-great grandmother had a Bengali parent, there’s that heredity. I’ve been living here off and on, for almost thirty years now. I go off to London and Scotland during the summers, and return again. It’s been a long association, maybe even longer.
Speaking of past lives, one of my favorite books is Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, which also went on to be a bestseller. Since its publication, you’ve travelled the world with fakirs, Sufis, Bauls, itinerants and incarnations. Tell us something about that journey.
You spend three years, maybe four, writing a book, and then travel around the world with it. Rather than talk about the characters on the road, I brought them with me on the road. It worked.
A book that your readers – my mother is a huge fan of yours, by the way, and has a shelf that houses your entire collection – absolutely loved is White Mughals. It’s a period in history that you’ve returned to again and again. What is it about that period that draws you, as a writer, a historian?
The period between the two empires, the fall of the Mughals and then the Raj, is absolutely fascinating. Old worlds crumbling, new worlds coming together. So many archives of that period hadn’t even been touched…such amazing stories waiting to be told. It took many years to write White Mughals, researching letters, diaries, rare documents of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A movie’s being made on that film.
What are your thoughts on postcolonial theory? And postcolonial theorists?
They’re welcome to it (chuckles.) I know many postcolonial theorists personally, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha.
A question that writers down the age – Virginia Woolf (your relative through your father’s side), Joyce Carol Oats, Sir Vidia Naipaul – have tried to answer is whether women’s writing is a separate genre. That is, whether women write differently from men…choice of subjects, style, that sort of thing. Some say women writers lay greater emphasis on love and relationships. But White Mughals is about a love affair too, between British resident Captain James Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-nissa, a Hyderabadi royal woman. It’s a stupendous historical work, but also a love story…
I’m not a woman writer, but, well, women write, so there’s women’s writing. I don’t think it’s a cast-iron category, something that can separate itself irretrievably from other spaces. In that sense, I can’t think of it as an entirely separate genre. And more than half of all literature is about love, no?
Sir Naipaul had famously opined that women’s writing is quite different because of its sentimentality and “narrow” view of the world, and that he can know within a paragraph or two whether a piece of writing is by a woman. He said there’s no woman writer he considers his equal…
He (Naipaul) is someone who has very strong opinions. There’s something about the joys of being a gadfly… He made a public appearance at the (Jaipur Literature) Festival last month, to attend the celebration of A House for Mr. Biswas. The old feud between him and Paul Theroux came to an end quite dramatically. He held Theroux’s hand, Theroux pushed his wheelchair. It was very touching.
Finally, as someone who’s also privy to your Facebook posts, I get this sense that you place a lot of emphasis on joy. There’s art and erotica, music and mendicants…and goats, always goats. It’s all so alive. Do you consciously cultivate joy as a principle?
(Laughs) I hope so. I’m lucky to have a happy life. Animals, art, books, music, laughter…these are what make life worth living.