By Rituparna Mahapatra
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.