October Issue 2003
Interview: William Dalrymple
“There is far more in common between Delhi and Lahore than there is between Delhi and Madras”
– William Dalrymple
A: It was always there. I was brought up in a remote part of Scotland and I harangued my parents to let me go and see the Tutenkhanem exhibition on my first visit to London. On my teenage holidays I was digging on archaeological digs.
What wasn’t always there were India and Pakistan, which I had no interest in as an adolescent. A whole series of accidents led to my going to India during my year off at school. I had planned to dig in Iraq and stay with my brother in Swaziland. Those plans fell through and I ended up going to India with a friend who had got a job teaching in Dehra Dun.
I went to school in the equally remote Yorkshire moors. I hadn’t even seen London and found myself in India. I found myself in a strange world and was quite muddled at first. It soon developed into a passionate love affair which is still going to this day. It has as much hate and disgust as many affairs, but what I find is that this place, however difficult it may get, never lacks interest. It continually engages you.
Q: What about writing?
A: I don’t come from a literary background. Neither of my parents went to university and my father was in the army, but I have literary blood not too far back. Virginia Woolf is a great aunt and the Bloomsbury connection goes back a little further. I have a little thing from primary school where we were asked what we wanted to be and I said a writer and an archaeologist.
Q: There’s a great change from City of Djinns to White Mughals. Was it deliberate?
A: City of Djinns and Xanadu were books written by a very young man. I was 22 when I wrote Xanadu and 28 when I wrote City of Djinns. They have all the pitfalls and the plus points of young men’s books. They are also different forms. Xanadu is a travelogue and City of Djinns a personal memoir. This is an attempt to write a solid piece of history, it’s not at all personal.
You have at the moment in both Pakistan and India an astonishing outpouring of fiction. It will be looked on as the most fertile periods of South Asian writing, but it’s always fiction. There’s no comparable renaissance in non-fiction in either country. There are no great biographies being written.
In Britain at the moment, serious,well researched non-fiction books such as Anthony Beaver’s book on Stalingrad — now coming on for two million copies — are doing every bit as well as any fiction, with the possible exception of the Harry Potter books.
It would be very difficult now as a gora to be writing a novel set in Pakistan or in India, because there’s so much fabulous stuff coming out from the people who are closer to the material. There’s no Paul Scotts any more or Ruth Prawer Jhabvalas, all the fiction coming out of India is by Indians.
I think fiction has now been reclaimed by the desis, but there still is room in non-fiction, it’s wide open. The book I’m writing right now is about Bahadur Shah Zafar and the end of Mughal Delhi. This is one of the great turning points in Indian history, but there’s an astonishing absence about this major theme in Indian history and it’s lovely for me. It’s nowhere in European history that you would be able to take a major theme of the history of the last two centuries and find that you’re the first person to be working on it in half a century.
Q: In terms of writing did you find White Mughals more difficult?
A: In terms of writing I found it easier. A travel book is in a sense closer to the novel in the sense that you have to create your own narrative. Your framework is completely clear from the chronology. You don’t have to worry about how to do the next bit. It’s the longest book I’ve written and it took the shortest time of actually writing.
Q: Was your first draft about the same length?
A: I don’t do drafts. I have a continual process of rewriting. Whenever I get a decent chunk, about four or five chapters, I’ll show it to my friends, they’ll comment, I’ll correct it, I’ll send it to somebody else, and they’ll say it’s quite boring here, cut all this and say more about that. I find it’s a terrific process because other people’s eyes are always much fresher. I work very hard on rewriting everything as it goes on and then revising, revising, revising.
I had no idea that White Mughals was going to be as long as it turned out to be. In between the proof stage and the printing I cut about thirty pages and I think I should have cut about seventy.
It certainly divided my readership. You know like when Bob Dylan suddenly went electric, all the old fogies who for 30 years had listened to acoustic guitar were put out. The glitzy Delhi socialites who liked tricky stuff within the City of Djinns and found it a very accessible way of learning history found this much heavier going.
Q: If you come to this from the City of Djinns it’s a big jump.
A: I have three kids in school. Xanadu was four months on the road, in those days my wife used to be travelling with me and we could just head off, and now early middle age has its talons firmly in me. There are children to be looked after, homework to be done, boring bureaucratic things like VAT returns suddenly rear their head. Even if I wanted to, it would be very difficult to do the sort of freewheeling travel writing I was doing before. It was a phase in my life when one was young, free and single and you could just pack off with a backpack for as long as you liked.
Q: How do you divide your time between London and Delhi?
A: We have a small flat in Delhi, but London is the main base. Most of the material for the next book, about Bahadur Shah Zafar, is in the National Archives in Delhi, so I will be spending quite a lot of time there.
The children are now eight, six and three, and we may move them to Delhi for a term. They love the sounds, they don’t mind the heat, they love seeing elephants or camels in the street, but they hate the food and try as we might to wean them on to daal and rice, they’re not having any.
Q: You talk about things being the same in India and Pakistan, but you must find some differences, too.
A: I much prefer to emphasise the similarities because everyone here spends their lives emphasising the differences. I think there is far more in common between Delhi and Lahore than there is between Delhi and Madras.
A: It is one country still, really. The forces of globalisation are such that you’re moving in the same direction. The impact of MTV on both elites, for example. You suddenly have kids in both countries wearing baseball caps and doing pop dances. Both countries seem to be simultaneously sliding into rival fundamentalisms.
Last week I was writing a story in India on the rewriting of history textbooks. The new BJP textbooks portray Muslims merely as temple destroyers and barbarians, rampaging around India for a thousand years. I was sitting with Delhi liberals shaking their heads and saying ‘what do we do about this fundamentalism.’ I spent this week writing about madrassas here and listening to exactly the same voices saying ‘what do we do about our fundamentalists.’
Q: You’ve also worked as a journalist.
A: In between books, I love doing long magazine pieces. Books are the real thing. They are what one’s life achievement adds up to, but I love doing bits of telly and radio and magazine work in between. They are far more ephemeral, but great fun to do, they get you out and about.
Q: You are quite versatile.
A: My versatility comes to a close at fiction. I tried to write fiction and it doesn’t work. I’ve written some disastrous short stories which have dissuaded me from ever even attempting to write a novel. I’ve written different shades of non-fiction about the Islamic world, but I’m not one of those polymaths who jumps between an opera one year, being a doctor the next and a sports star the third.
Q: What about poetry?
A: I’ve never written poetry, nor do I read a great deal of of it. I read fewer and fewer novels each year. I’m interested at the moment in the possibilities of writing narrative history. To use narrative, character, description, fine prose but to be telling, not something from your imagination but scrupulously researched history from primary sources. It seems to me something no one else is doing here, although it’s happening a lot in the west. There’s been a fabulous biography of Keats that’s sold nearly a million copies. It’s scrupulously researched, beautifully written, with as easy a narrative flavour as any novel, but it’s true. And you learn from it.
Q: We don’t seem to place much value on history. Is it the same in India?
A: There is a remarkable lack of history writing, no good narrative non-fiction. There’s academic history writing, which is written in impenetrable language for other academics. That has its place but if you don’t produce stuff which ordinary educated people can read, then you’re going to have a people who’ll be open to myth-makers. It will be possible to tell middle class India, if they don’t know any better, that Muslims just burnt temples and never did anything else. Only if you make your writing accessible will people learn the truth of the story.
Q: You mentioned something about a mini-series based on the White Mughals.
A: It’s early days yet, nothing is signed, but everything is coming nicely together. I have various offers for films too and Shekhar Kapoor wants to make it into a film. Christopher Hampton, who is the incredibly talented scriptwriter for the play Dangerous Liaisons, wants to do both the stage play and the screen play.
Q: The life of a writer can be lonely.
A: I’m naturally very gregarious. But I’m very happy not to see anyone till dinner time, then get out in the evening, see some friends, chat and relax. What does drive me potty is, for example, you go off to the country to write your book and you’re tied to your screen all day, there’s nowhere to go in the evening, you watch television on another screen and then in the morning there’s the word processor.
I wrote White Mughals in nine months and it was a total labour of dawn to dusk every day, which at times is a horrific thing. As the manuscript begins to gather volume, as you refine it and your friends make remarks about it, you take out the bad passages and see it all coming together, it’s a wonderful feeling. When you get the hardback in your hands for the first time and you see four years labour crystallised in one volume, that’s fabulous, you can’t ask for more.
Q: How closely do you work with an editor?
A: I’ve had the same editor at Harper Collins ever since I was in university when I wrote Xanadu. Most publishing today is very erratic in that editors are constantly being headhunted by rival publishing houses. Mike Fishwick, who is my editor, has been with Harper Collins as long as I have and we’ve slowly risen together.
Before I send anything to him my writing has already been through the mill of five or six friends. By the time it gets to Mike it hopefully doesn’t need any major surgery.
Q: White Mughals certainly breaks fresh ground.
A: It is the book I’m most proud of, it’s my favourite baby, it’s a grown-up book. I’m proud that it has got acceptance in South Asia. These are very sensitive themes, an Indian woman and a British man, but no one’s attacked it and it hasn’t got a bad review. It’s been a huge bestseller, the largest ever for Penguin in India after Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy.
It covers the pre-colonial period in a non-colonised part of India. The British in Hyderabad at that stage were emissaries in an independent kingdom. This period is much more unfamiliar than the colonial period, and the fusion of cultures that went on is something that people haven’t written about. The British imperial historians were embarassed by it, nationalist historians weren’t interested in it, post-colonial historians didn’t know about it.
Nicest of all, the book has won the Wolfson history prize which is the top history prize in England. Every other winner is a professor of an academic history department, so the academics have given it their seal of approval.
Tehmina Ahmed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is a senior editor at Newsline and head of Newsline Films.