India’s Favourite Historian, William Dalrymple Talks Travel, Writing, And Finding Historic Gems
India’s favourite author and historian, William Dalrymple, can tell you stories you won’t find anywhere else. The award-winning author the spotlight on the process of writing his book, his competitors in India and the bad press, or lack of it, that he has faced thus far
When I first connected with British historian and writer, William Dalrymple, over a call to request him for a quote at short notice many years ago, the anxiety of the stiff upper lip melted away the moment he said “Hello”. Not only did he immediately share the quote on the same call, but a few years later during the pandemic, when I messaged him to participate in a virtual book reading session, Dalrymple promptly agreed, despite being on a holiday in Italy.
The Scotland-born award-winning author, who wrote his first book, In Xanadu: A Quest, at 22 (which became a bestseller), moved to Delhi in 1989, where he spent five years researching his masterpiece, The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. His other bestselling works include From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, and The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan.
“For the current book that I’m now on, The Golden Road, I’m reaching towards the end of the research phase, and the writing bit is getting closer and closer, and I’m dreading putting pen to paper again, but every day that moment draws more imminent. Writing these books, the research is always the fun part to do. The least fun is the actual part of writing, which is hard work,” chortles Dalrymple, 56, over a Zoom call from London, where he spends summertime each year.
The morning we speak, he is working on early Afghan history with the beginning of Kushan art in Afghanistan, how that links to Mathura and Gandhara. “It’s completely fascinating,” he says.
The process of writing a book can be heavy, especially when it’s history, which requires strenuous research before even thinking of writing. Writing a book is a four-year process for Dalrymple, where, he says, the first year is spent reading the secondary materials. He then begins to travel, to see the sights and the archives in various places, when he needs to do archive research — as in the recently released The Company Quartet, a collection comprising his four books: The Anarchy, White Mughals, Return of a King and The Last Mughal, that cover over two hundred years of East India Company history.
“I put my research together in old-fashioned card indexes by name, place, and topic, and then accumulate detail in the timeline on my laptop. And then the day comes, when I begin to actually put pen to paper after about three to four years and it’s awful, and I hate it. It’s like writing exams. Once I get started, I print out the day’s work before going to bed, and I have it on a clipboard. I wake up and before anything else, I go to the terrace and start correcting the previous day’s work before typing corrections into the computer, and that takes still about 10 am,” shares Dalrymple.
“I recover in the evening, and then again I look through the stuff and correct it before going to bed. I don’t have much of a social life during the six to eight months that I’m writing,” he laughs.
The research means sometimes taking the Delhi metro, and going to the National Archives in central Delhi, which is very routine, and at other times, it’s dodging bullets looking for manuscripts in Afghanistan.
“On my way out of Kandahar airport, I got a sniper shot to the back of our car. Thankfully, it was an armoured car, and I’m alive to tell the tale. Afghanistan can be exciting and extremely dangerous,” he recalls.
In fact, Dalrymple’s most dangerous trip was to Afghanistan for Return of a King. He got great material there without much effort in Kabul, where Ashraf Ghani, who was then the head of Kabul University, pointed him to an old book shop, where a lot of the old princely libraries had ended up in the ’80s, when Afghans were fleeing abroad after the Soviet invasion. “This guy bought up their libraries, and I bought primary sources from him,” he says triumphantly.
“For the climax of the Return of the King — when the East India Company Army retreats from Kabul and the whole army is cut up — I had to go with the ex-commander of the Taliban into that territory for that research,” he adds.
With White Moghuls, which is the first, Dalrymple went to Hyderabad, where he was listening to and talking to many people, as well as visiting the British residencies. He went back to London for the 18th century letters, which told an incredible story of the love affair between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa.
“These had just been accessioned by British library and added to their catalogue, literally three to four months before I asked. It was an ideal situation, everything was catalogued, every bundle of letters had a brief description of content, and yet, no one else had researched or read them. And in one letter, James had written to his brother a letter number code, which he used whenever he was describing the private moments of his relationship with Khair un-Nissa. Then we found the corresponding Persian text from a cousin of Khair who’d written a book in the aftermath of the affair, which gave the woman’s side of the story. So here we have the rarest of things — a personal story about a love affair, which was recorded from both ends, in great detail, which allowed me to reconstruct the story,” he explains.
For The Anarchy, too, there were lots of exciting discoveries. “For example, we found a biography in Persian of Shah Alam, who is the main character in a library in Tonk, Rajasthan. My colleague and Persian translator, Bruce Wannell, who has worked on all four books with me and died last year, went to Tonk and did the translations,” says Dalrymple and adds, “He was a very important figure in my professional life. We were really a duo. I was the writer and he was the translator, and gave me access to these rare Persian texts, which otherwise very few people these days can read. He was my key to unlocking the other half of the story because the colonial records were really easy to access via British Library or Indian National Archives, but the Persian stuff is used by very few people today, and there are just a handful who can read this stuff.”
Now that Wannell is dead, says Dalrymple, he’s lost the key to Narnia.
“Though there are several other people with goodish Mughal Persian, I don’t think they’d do it with the same wonderful sensitivity to language, which made Bruce’s translations so unique. So, I decided to wrap the thing as a quartet and it works really well — The Anarchy takes us from the founding of the East India Company in 1599 to when they capture Delhi in 1802. White Moghuls opens slightly before 1798, and carries on to 1805. Return of a King starts where White Moghuls closes in 1835, and finally, The Last Mughal ends with the destruction of both the Moghuls and the East India Company in 1857-8,” says the bestselling author.
One might think history is a subject most aren’t too excited about, so how many people, especially today’s readers, might take to these deeply explored stories? In fact, as a writer, has Dalrymple’s writing process changed to make history more palatable to younger readers? “This is inherently thrilling stuff. You have to try quite hard to make this boring. In fact, every fan letter I’ve received always begins with same sentence ‘I hated history in school but…’.” There, we have our answer.
Speaking of competition from Indian writers, Dalrymple points out that it’s weird that while in other countries, major academics write history for the ordinary reader, no Indian academic is writing at that level here. “We have an amazing array of fiction writers in India like Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Kiran Desai, but there’s still no comparable Indian non-fiction team. I don’t know why that is, but since I’ve made my career in that space, we’ve seen relatively very few Indians writing first-rate narrative history at a prize-winning level. Now we have a new range of young and very talented writers like Manu Pillai, but that wasn’t when I started this project 20 years ago. This gap allowed me to do what I did as there was no competition, but now it’s going to be much more difficult it seems.” says Dalrymple.
“I’ve been lucky, and had very little critical press. I think one of the things that made me safe was I’m not English, I’m Scottish, and in that sense, as a Scot, you have an experience of both sides of the story, you’ve both been colonised and a coloniser,” says Dalrymple.
It might not be an easy thing to be born in a colonial country and then living in a country to write tricky and sensitive local history and have it appeal to both Brits and Indians, but Dalrymple has done it.
“I’ve finished 20 years on East India Company, and now I’m going to write about the period of Ashoka. I will begin writing The Golden Road in January after two years of lockdown reading and research. It’s the story of Indian influence spreading out over Asia — essentially of Buddhism going up to China and Hinduism and Sanskrit going down to South East Asia, and India numbers and mathematics going West,” he signs off.
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE’S FAVOURITES
Contemporary writer: Cormac McCarthy
1930-60 writer: Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote
All-time novelist: Leo Tolstoy
Indian non-fiction writer: Suketu Mitra
Indian novelist: B Ramtan