Writing Matters: In conversation with William Dalrymple

By Rituparna Mahapatra

William Dalrymple

Historian, art curator, travel writer, broadcaster, photographer and one of the co-founders and co-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival – William Dalrymple wears many hats. Born and brought up in Scotland and educated in England, he made India his home, driven by his love for the country and its history.

William Dalrymple was one of the guest authors at the 10th commemorative year of Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, 2018, Dubai. Beaming smile in place, Dalrymple spoke to a full house, the audience in rapt attention as he unfolded the story of the ‘Kohinoor’ diamond, a story that he narrates in his latest book by the same name, co-authored with Anita Anand.

In conversation with Rituparna Mahapatra at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival 2018, he speaks about his love for India, his travel stories, his passion for history, his current book and his family.
The first thing that strikes you about William Dalrymple is his affable laugh. He wanted to be an archaeologist digging ruins in Iraq; it was chance that he accompanied his friend to India and could never really get himself to go back, he laughs and says.

Rituparna: You have many laurels – historian, art curator, writer… how would you primarily describe yourself?

William Dalrymple: I am a writer.  Most of my life comes under that heading, and that is the work I do most days. It encompasses all my other roles. The other stuff that I do, like running the Jaipur Literature Festival or my photography is a lovely diversion. But on this, no question in my head – I am a writer.

Rituparna: You have pioneered the non-fictional narrative storytelling. Is there a particular method, a sort of regime to your writing?

Dalrymple: Very much so.

Thank you, it’s very sweet of you to say I have pioneered non-fictional narrative storytelling, but I think I have only pioneered it within the Indian context. The kind of books I write is very common among my contemporaries where I come from in Britain, and that is the biographical narrative British history, which is the traditional way of writing history. But in India, so much of history is academic history. With my sociological takes on history, people here were slightly ruffled by what I am doing. They thought, am I writing a novel? No, I am not writing a novel; I am writing non-fiction, but I am writing it in a narrative form. And it is all based on historical facts.

Coming to my regime, yes I follow a particular method while working on a book. It is typically a cycle of three to four years, sometimes more. The current East India Company book that I am working on would take around four to five years.  The first year, when I go on a book tour from the last book, I begin thinking about what I am going to do next. I start to look for ideas, track the right people, find archives, and by the end of the year, am finally settled on the subject of the book. Then, I start reading on what has already been written on the subject. That’s the most beautiful part of the cycle because you are just sitting by the pool, reading books on the subject of your interest.  Then gradually the pressure builds up, and then I begin looking at archives, and that is more like serious work, which means you could be at some Government archives maybe in Kabul, in Lahore or New Delhi. Then comes the writing itself, which usually happens in year three or four. That’s the final invest, getting up early… getting fit, dieting a bit.., not going out too much. This phase is more like doing an exam.

I print out my chapters up to where I got to in any given chapter. The night before, it’s by my bed, so when I am up by six next morning, I would be out on the terrace, reading it and correcting it. I would be feeding my corrections by 9 a.m. and hopefully by 10 a.m. I would be moving work and writing up till late lunch around 2 p.m.

On hot summer months, I might take a siesta, do some chores, check mail, catch up on Facebook, go shopping maybe, do that sort of thing; live the real life. And then towards 4 to 5 in the afternoon, I go back to my corrections, start planning my next day’s writing and if all goes well with preparing my indexes, facts and datelines, it should be quick, not more than nine to ten months, at the maximum a year, with serious concentration.

Rituparna: So it takes about four to five years for a book?

Dalrymple: Yes, the big books, like The Last Mughals and the current one I am working on, about the East India Company.

Rituparna: And your serious research work is included at that time?

Dalrymple: Yes, at least three years is devoted to researching, since my books are based on those facts.

Rituparna: As the co-founder of Jaipur literary festival, often spoken as one of the greatest ‘literary shows’ of the world, what do you think of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature here in Dubai?

Dalrymple: I think it’s fun! I have just arrived and am in no position to make comments on it, but from my memory of it last time, I like the diversity in the crowd. Palestinian, Indian, American, Lebanese, British… it’s wonderful. They have good authors, a good range of authors and it is all fabulous.

Rituparna: Do you see any parallels between this and Jaipur literature festival?

Dalrymple: Well, all literary festivals are similar; we have authors talking about their books and audiences listening to them. Where we are fortunate in Jaipur is this gorgeous property which we have, the Diggi Palace. It’s open air and under the trees; we have doves and peacocks strutting around in between the tents, and the weather is perfect at that time of the year. And I love being outdoors.  It’s a different thing being outdoors than inside a conference hall, so that’s where I would say we are lucky with Jaipur Literary Festival.

Rituparna: What is striking about your book Holy Mountain is your understanding of the Middle East. Contrary to popular belief that the Middle East is the home of Islam, you have proved that it was the heartland of Christianity.

Dalrymple: Thank you. You are right, and before that Judaism. We assume that Christianity is a Western religion. No, it’s not. It’s very much an Eastern religion as much as is Islam or Judaism.

Rituparna: Which are your favourite places in the Middle East?

Dalrymple: I love the Middle East, and I have a vast range of favourites. I love Istanbul and Turkey. I used to love Syria; I miss Syria very much. I haven’t been back since the war. I loved Aleppo most of all. The idea of that beautiful city being destroyed is heartbreaking. When I last visited, the city had just received a fantastic cleanup from UNESCO, and it was looking beautiful. We made a documentary on the origin and growth of Sufi music. Aleppo was one of the places where we filmed, and the war began the following year. So what we got now is in a sense the last cinematic record of the world now destroyed, that no longer exists. It’s unfortunate.

Rituparna: How do you take criticism if any?

Dalrymple: I don’t read them. I haven’t come across much criticism. I have been very lucky that I have this great south Asian audience. When I started writing, I was writing for a British audience, but now increasingly I think I am writing for the Indian audience. And amongst many very brilliant Indian novelists, there are not many who are writing on history for the general audience. So to a certain extent, I have a field to myself.

Rituparna: Which is your favourite book amongst all your books?

Dalrymple: I don’t know; I think my travel books and my history books.

Rituparna: Who is your favourite author?

Dalrymple: For non-fiction Suketu Mehta. Maximum City is a masterpiece.

Rituparna: And for fiction?

Dalrymple: Arundhati Roy. I am particularly very fond of the writings of Daniyal Mueenuddin; I think he is the best short story writer in South Asia.

Rituparna: You are about to speak on your book Kohinoor, here at Emirates Literature Festival. Tell us a bit about it.

Dalrymple: Kohinoor is one of my short books, not one of my major projects. Anita Anand has co-authored it. I have written the early history of the diamond through the Mughals till Ranjit Singh, and then she takes over. I mean, the Brit tells the Indian part of the story and the Indian narrates the Brit part of the story. Living in India, I was aware of how much the loss of the diamond meant to the Indians, how passionate they were about it, mainly the Punjabis. But I hadn’t realised it also said a great deal to the Afghanis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Iranians and the Taliban. Six different countries claimed it, and it was like the ring of power and everyone who touched it came to a horribly painful end. So, I felt the story of the diamond had to be told.

Rituparna: Is there a movie being made on it?

Dalrymple: There have been several offers, and our office is in touch with the production houses showing interest. Recently Zee has come up with a proposal. So hopefully the story about the trail of the diamond, the politics and the gore that followed it will be up on the screen. It will be one of the bloodiest tales told.

Rituparna: What are you working on now?

Dalrymple: I am about to start writing the ‘East India Company’ book which is a huge project, and I am slightly nervous. It’s a particularly intractable story but it’s also an incredibly contemporary story. People still talk about it. Shashi Tharoor talks about how the British took over India, but it wasn’t the British Government. It was this multinational company, a corporation operating from a small office block in Calcutta for profit. It had employed about 30 guards in 1739, and by the end of 1800, they had an army of 200,000 people, twice the size of the British army! It was much worse. There wasn’t a hint of government responsibility till the 1850s. It’s a unique event in world history when a corporation takes over a country. So I will be telling this story of the world’s most powerful evil corporation that took over a country.

Rituparna: In this age of science and technology where things are moving forward at a mind-blowing pace, you go back to history; you look for answers there, and you relate it to the present. How do you do it?

Dalrymple: I think that’s the way my mind works. I keep going back in time. You know, some people obsess about music or art, I obsess about History. It’s been with me since I was very young. I remember as a child I begged my parents to take me to London to see the Tutankhamen exhibition. Ancient Egypt history was my first great love. So it’s the way I think, when I read history, I draw parallels with the present times. You are right. Of my last three books, White Mughals is all about multiculturalism, The Last Mughal is about Islamophobia, The King Returns is a parable about Western meddling in Afghanistan, about colonialism and reparations. The next one is about evils of wicked multinationals. East India Company was much bigger than the Walmart, Facebook and Google of present days, its conspiracies going beyond all theories.

Rituparna: Tell us a little about your family. Do your children also have an interest in art and history?

Dalrymple: I have three kids, one daughter and two sons. The eldest, Ibby is working in a gallery in New York at the moment. She is into the art world like her mum. Sam is at Oxford studying Sanskrit and Persian, and he is pretty good at both the languages. He spends his Easter holidays at Pondicherry learning to speak Sanskrit. There are places near Pondicherry where people speak in Sanskrit even today. My younger son Adam loves Afghanistan, Pakistan and Taliban, and ISI and I took him with me recently during my researches and what he saw absolutely blew his mind.


As we come to the end of a precious 15-minute slot interview, I walk out with a smile. William Dalrymple’s unassuming, pleasant demeanour seems to have taken over the room, and everyone seemed to be happy and at ease, waiting for their turn.

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