Watch the video here A notorious British pirate captures a treasure ship of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Onboard […]
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.
James Tod, the British army official and administrator, came to Bengal in 1799. Within the span of twenty years, the East India Company entrusted Tod with the responsibilities of Political Agent in the states of Western Rajputana. During his residency, he surveyed the regions of Bundi, Mewar, Kota, Marwar and Sirohi to collect material on Rajput rulers. In 1829, Tod published his research on Rajputs in Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan or the Central and Western Rajput States of India.
Florence D’Souza re-analyzes the literary production of Tod in her book titled Knowledge, Mediation and Empire: James Tod’s Journeys Among the Rajputs to set the parallel and contrast between Rajasthan and Europe. D’Souza embarks on this project to uncover the multifaceted talent of Tod.
Chapter 1, “Tod as an Observer of Landscape in Rajasthan and Gujarat” captures the aesthetics of landscape for which Tod seems to have abandoned the primitive frameworks, including “Sublime” and “Beauty” and rather expresses his confidence in the novelistic “Picturesque” technique to draw an analogy between India and Scotland. D’Souza explains that Tod invariably uses the Scottish terms to describe the Bondi Mountain Range in Rajasthan but he engages in collecting and sampling of data for creating an accurate topography of the region.
In the second chapter – “Tod as an Anthropologist: Trying to Understand,” D’Souza sheds light on Tod’s endeavor to carry out surveys and gather information of historical artifacts and bards. Tod creates records of Rajput manners and customs with the aid of his Indian assistants and Indian gurus. He observes and records the history of nearly all the Rajput communities for the purpose of setting a parallel and contrast with the cultures of Europe. The author establishes that Tod, though a colonel and administrator later, tries to bridge the ambiguous gap between myth or legend on the one hand and factual history with genealogies of flesh and blood on the other.
Although Tod is untrained in cataloguing, enlisting, segregation and other scientific processes common to the classification of wildlife, yet his succinct description proves him a person of valuable knowledge. With a brief sketch of scientific trends in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, the author ventures into the territories relating to the institutionalization of Botany and Geology in British universities. This is also the time when many geologists, botanists, anthropologists, surveyors and cartographers of Scottish origin came to India. In chapter 3, the author gives details of how Tod is helped by his subordinate Patrick Waugh (1799-1821), his Indian guru – Yati Gyanchandra, Brahmin assistant – Balgovind, and some Indian artists in cataloguing and classification of data collected from different princely states. While Tod prefers to use the western scientific instrument for land surveys in India, he willingly acknowledges certain scientific acumen of Indians.
William Dalrymple’s account of how the East India Company conquered, subjugated and plundered vast tracts of south Asia: The Guardian
One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle.
The last hereditary Welsh prince, Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis castle as a craggy fort in the 13th century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation: Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century.
A rip-roaring ride through a violence-riven Raj: The Independent
The publishers have done this book a disservice in calling it a “rip-roaring caper”. True, it has lots of fast-moving drama, but it also has a carefully researched setting in early Victorian India, where the East India Company, backed up by the British Army, controls much of the sub-continent.