William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple is an internationally acclaimed writer and historian. He is the winner of the Wolfson Prize in History in 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year award for his last book White Mughals. Dalrymple is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society. In 2002, he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his 'outstanding contribution to travel literature' and in 2005 he was given the Percy Sykes Medal of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs. He wrote and presented the television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. Some of the other noteworthy books by Dalrymple are City of Djinns, Age of Kali, In Xanadu and From the Holy Mountains. Incidentally, Dalrymple is also the great-nephew of Virginia Woolf.

Amrita Ghosh talks to the congenial writer in a freewheeling interview about some of his works, reflections on India and himself as the writer.


Q. Let’s begin with the City of Dinns—the language of this particular text is very interesting; the text enacts a kind of ‘mongrelized’ language with an influence of Urdu and Hindi in the English text. Would you say it was a conscious intent from your part to use such a mélange in your writing?

WD: If it is there it is certainly subconscious (laughs) yes. I am aware of parodying the speech patterns of my driver and my landlady. That’s obviously conscious. If Hindi and Urdu have crept into the English text, as opposed to the dialogue, that’s just a part of living here and having to describe things for which often there are no English equivalents; if one is describing the architecture or the objects in India and there is no English equivalent then you have to use Hindi or Urdu. It wasn’t a conscious stylistic trope or anything.

Q. It almost enacted the pattern of the hybridity that Delhi has...

WD: Well, that’s very nice of you to say so, but it certainly wasn’t intentional (laughs); it shows perhaps that I was absorbed in my subject.

Q. In the same text, City of Djinns, it seems that you are valorizing Old Delhi, its old traditions and are constantly in search of the its past, old glory, and you separate it from the new modernity that is seeping through Delhi. In this regard, would it be right to say that you are very critical of the modernity that has shaped up the ‘new’ Delhi?

WD: No, but the form of the book is that it is looking for fragments of the past. That is the kind of overarching scheme of the book, that it is searching in each period of history for fragments that survived. So, from people who remember Lutyens in the Raj section through to eunuchs as representatives of the kind of decadence of the Mughal court, through to Sufis representing fragments of medieval Delhi, through to Sadhus in Nigambodh Ghat representing the fragments of the old Sanskrit; so it isn’t specifically old Delhi, it is looking for remnants of each period. That is the central idea of the book. That Delhi has this sort of flypaper quality; each of its different periods has some surviving fragments if you look for them. Which is not the same as the kind of the Orientalist trope of saying India is the eternal unchanging land; that is very far from what it is saying. What it is saying is that if you look you can find little bits and fragments of the way of life and ideas of each period still coexisting with the present. Certainly in a kind of a romantic sense I think you can say without any shadow of doubt that Delhi, during its Mughal Golden Age, and even during its the 19th C decline when it was at the peak of its Urdu poetic creativity, that this was a more creative and more artistic and in many ways more powerful city than the modern city. And certainly in a romantic sense it appeals to me more. This is my favorite city, I choose to live here; half of my friends in the world live here, so I am very fond of modern Delhi. But certainly it’s hard not to take the view that the Mughal period during Shahjahan would have been an even more spectacular age.

Q. There is also a sense of a search for Delhi’s origins—where do you think Delhi’s roots lie; or is it a sense of where origins constantly slip away?

WD: No, it is a very specific idea that runs through the book. That it’s going backwards like peeling an onion and it starts very much looking at modern Delhi and goes backwards thru the Raj, through the twilight, through the Mughal period down to Medieval Delhi. So there is a kind of succession that Delhi reveals back to the mythical origins with the disappearance of the Sadhus of the Nigambodh Ghat. So, I think it has a tighter structure than you give it credit for. It is a very specific scheme of work in its architecture.

Q. A final question on City of Djinns- are you trying to reconstruct Delhi’s past in this text through the people who don’t belong, whose voices are lost or don’t matter?

WD: Well, again, I give my previous answer. It is very much trying to find fragments of each period. That’s the exercise I set myself. Certainly, the people from the previous period are often marginal to the modern city because there are no calligraphers; the eunuchs or the Sufis of Nizamuddin-- these are not people who, obviously, have political power or wealth, or are central to the life of modern city in any sense. These are people who are in a sense washed up at the shores of history. That’s what I was setting out to do.

Q. Switching to the White Mughals now-- In the White Mughals, are you reconstructing the British colonial history against a very monolithic imperial history that we generally come across? There is a second part to this question: You mention in the Introduction to White Mughals that a certain kind of postcolonialism has gained currency after Said’s Orientalism. Can you expand on that? Are you suggesting that ‘new generation’ postcolonial studies have missed some aspect in the colonial aftermath or that the White Mughals were devoid of the hegemony between colonizer and colonized?

WD: The period I am writing about is neither the colonial period nor the precolonial-- this is the period on the cusp, when you have the independent state Hyderabad, which the British are gradually sort of encircling and surrounding, and the relationships which are going through the period—sexual relationship, power relationships, intra-relationships are very different from the precolonial period when you have a bunch of powerless British traders begging for favors at the throne of the Great Mughal Jahangir. Equally, they are very different from the high imperialist period where you have Curzon sitting up in Simla ordering the people of the subcontinent to do his bidding from his imperial aerie. What you have in this period is a period which has been forgotten about or ignored by scholars because it doesn’t fit into any of the established tropes. This is a period which mixes- you have an intermixture of cultures, you have a mutual exploration of cultures between incoming Brits and the Mughal aristocracy. But it is also spreading different levels down. There is nothing in Said’s theory which takes in such a period of hybridity and it’s strikingly different from the stereotypes. What intrigued me was looking at records of the wills of this period-- the case which I go in such detail-- the Kirkpatrick case—is to my mind clearly not a one off, or even an exception. One in three British men was involved in some sort of serious relationship with an Indian woman, serious enough to leave them money in their will, or to leave money to their Anglo-Indian children. So this is a period I think which doesn’t fit into any Indian stereotype, Said stereotype, the British imperial stereotype, or the one which has been the established historiography, and for that it is so interesting.

Q. White Mughals is of course Kirkpatrick’s story, but would it be correct to say that Khair-un-Nissa is the protagonist too? Are you trying to reconstruct the agency of the women in White Mughals?

WD: Well I think the women clearly did have agency; the women in White Mughals drive the action. The frustration is that while they were literate and wrote letters, those letters have been destroyed, very deliberately; Russell’s descendants clearly destroyed what letters there were from Khair Un-Nissa, in the course of covering up his corruption in the Hyderabad residency. And that’s very clear; we have clear references that there were letters existing. So one has a frustration: here you have a story where the women were creating their own agency, where the women were clearly running their own course of events separate from both Kirkpatrick and their own men-folk. The men of the family were not happy with what the mother, the godmother, and Khair-Un-Nissa were up-to. The frustration is that with the exception of three letters from Khair-Nissa’s mother, which do survive in the Bodleian, none of these women speak directly, although we do have the accounts of their conversations and their actions coming through male focus.

Q. The White Mughals almost seems divided into two sections- one with the extraordinary romance between James Kirkpatrick and Khair Un-nissa and the other has the detailed, broader history of what you term the ‘white Mughals’, who slowly became extinct with the Victorian advent. While writing, did you ever feel that the book had two varying stylistic elements and genres within it?

WD: Yes, I think it is a correct observation, and it’s one that I tried my best to iron out. The point of the book is that the central paradigm, if you like, that this was not an exceptional case, this was a general case and it’s important to give the contextual material, that shows this is best recorded example of a wider set of relationships. So yes, I think you are right—on one hand I have material for a non-fiction, body-stripping romance and on the other, I have a lot of serious historical data and I made an effort to try and make the book accessible. I set out to write for a general audience not an academic audience. I also wanted to give enough scholarly data for it to be taken seriously as a history book. I think it is successful enough that it won the Wolfson Prize in History, while also being on Richard and Judy, which is the British equivalent of Oprah; which I am very proud because it sort of spanned very low culture and very high. But I think there are dissonances within the text, that result from bridging two very different genres.

Q. I gather that you are working on a sequel to White Mughals? Can you talk about that?

WD: It is sort of a sequel, but not a direct sequel. Most of the characters in White Mughals are dead by the time this book begins. It’s taking the story of British Indian relationship forward through the lens of the last great Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar who ruled increasingly powerlessly in Delhi until the outbreak of the Mutiny of the First War of Independence, the revolt of the peasants in1857. And if you like, White Mughals is the story of the forgotten love affair between India and Britain, which neither side remembered but which clearly was there, if you look at the historical data. Then this book which is going to be called The Last Movement is the story of the divorce; under the high Victorians all questions of the happy coexistence or equal relationships or sexual relationships, were totally banned, not officially banned, but were effectively banned and the two sides grew apart and you end up with this sort of enormous clash of civilizations in 1947 when the two go at each other hammer and tongs and the victorious British do their best to level Mughal culture and destroy everything that they can find of the aristocratic class and what’s left of their culture.

Q. Interestingly enough, the ending of White Mughals is reminiscent of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, only in a different way, because A Passage of India ends by the rejection of the fusion of East and West, where the friendship between the British and Indian characters is not possible-- Forster says-- “No not yet... No, not there”. Whereas you counter it by saying East and West have “mingled in the past and they will do so again”. Were you conscious of Forster’s conclusion and your subversion of it while writing the ending of White Mughals?

WD: No, to be honest, I have never actually read Forster (laughs). I’ve seen the movie- It is one of those classics that maybe I should read but I never have. So it is definitely not conscious. It is interesting what you said.

Q. Going along with that, given the present political scenario, do you think East and West will really mingle?

WD: I think clearly a clash of the civilizations is not impossible; it can be brought about if the West strictly, America and Britain inflict their will and flex their muscles and insult and degrade the Islamic world enough, then a backlash of the sort that has happened once is certainly possible. But what White Mughals shows is that it isn’t necessary. There are many periods of history like the 18th C and there are many other periods of history, whether it is Islamic Spain in the 7, 8, 9th C, whether its Norman Sicily in the 11th C ; Indian history has many examples where again Christians, Muslims, and Hindus have coexisted in extremely peacefully and in a very easy fashion. White Mughals recovers from the dustbin of history another example of that history. It certainly doesn’t show that a clash of civilization is impossible-- they clearly are—cases like the Crusades are examples of that, but it shows along with many other cases in history that these things are choices that can be made, not necessary states.

Q. Can you comment on the audience you write for in your works? Do you have a specific audience in your mind?

WD: Yes, I am basically writing for a general audience rather than an academic audience. So, I explain stuff, I don’t assume knowledge of any of this on the part of the reader. In a kind of general sense I suppose I have, when I am deciding how much needs to be explained, in mind my primary audience. 60% of all copies of my books are sold in Britain. I suppose that is there at the back of my mind, but at the front of my mind I am trying to tell a story as attractively as possible, in as nice language as possible, in an accessible way as possible. At the back of my mind, when I am making decisions on how much needs to be explained, I suppose I have vaguely in my mind a kind of well-educated, non-specialist British reader, so I may explain more than an Indian audience needs to know. But often I have found that people here funnily enough know as little as anyone else about their history. And that the kind of decisions that one may make with a Brit in mind in fact, are the same kinds of decisions one would make for if one were to write for a kid in St. Stephen’s or one of the colleges here.

Q. When you write about India, are you writing as the outsider or as an insider?

WD: I think, it is a bit of both. I am writing definitely primarily for an audience who don’t know India. But White Mughals is the biggest selling book of non-fiction that people in India have ever had so certainly it seems to appeal within India although that is not the audience I am aiming primarily at. Actually, when you have been in the country for a long time... whether it’s an Indian kid going to live in California working in a software company or whether its me coming to live here as historian and writer; to a certain extent you become a part of the country, and to a certain extent you remain always the person you were with the set of circumstances, history or personal history. So, I don’t think I can ever totally become Indian, but after twenty years I have certainly taken many of the Indian elements. In fact I am sitting talking to you right now in my cotton pajamas (laughs) and at lunch time I will probably have dal and rice. In various ways I have taken on the life of Delhi; I think I am in the lucky position, in that I can talk to both worlds

Q. What made you choose Delhi partly as ‘home’?

WD: Because I have always liked it here; it is matter of personal choice and as writer one can really live anywhere. And one is aware that one of the ironies of globalization being that most good Indian writers in English have chosen not to live in India. You have Salman Rushdie writing about Kashmir from New York, you have Amitav Ghosh writing about Burma and Sunderbans from Manhattan, you have Vikram Seth writing about his family in Yorkshire, you have V.S. Naipaul writing about Islam in India from Yorkshire, so a writer can choose to live where they please. I think its as much as personal choice as anything.

Q. Do you speak any Indian language?

WD: I have appalling but workable Hindi/Urdu, not nearly as good as it should be after all these years; I can read newspaper headlines but I can’t read with speed and ease the Hindi text.

Q. Finally, a last question: where does the ‘real’ India exist for you; is there a real India for you, if any?

WD: No, there are millions of Indias. Everybody has their own India and I think it’s a nonsense construction, “a real India”. The real India might be the India of the villages and certainly there’s a lot to be said of the fact that India’s heart lies in its villages. But I live 5 miles down the road from Gurgaon with skyscrapers and software companies and backoffice projects and call-centers. And that’s a very real India too, so I think “real India” doesn’t make much sense-- anymore than the real US with apple pie and Thanksgiving and family around campfires; is that anymore real than Manhattan?

{Special acknowledgements to Editorial Advisory Board Member, Dr. Sandra Jamieson for her help in the post-interview editing}


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