William Dalrymple’s Views on Indian history
Thirty-three years ago, on a cold winter night in Delhi, when everyone was swathed up in their blankets, braving the chill, 18-year-old William Dalrymple, landed in India. He wasn’t interested in this country back then, but over the years that changed and how — thanks to his many books about the rich Indian history. If you are someone who finds history boring, then you are among those who haven’t read Dalrymple. The prominent historian, author, broadcaster and critic, has many awards to his credit, has an innate knack with words, as he showcases bygone, ancient tales to you in a fascinating way.In an exclusive chat with Bombay Times , William tells us about how enthralling history really is with sagas of loot, murder, torture, violence, deceit
and colonial greed and more…
Do you think non-fiction has finally found its feet in India?
India has seen an enormous growth in non-fiction. They are actually selling more than fiction now, which was impossible to imagine a decade ago. There are amazing non-fiction writers in India — Suketu Mehta, his book on Mumbai, I think is a masterpiece of my generation of writers. At a recent literature festival, I must have had around 250 writers and at least 50 Indian non-fiction writers.
I agree that narrative history is only beginning to find its feet now with works of people like Ram Guha and Sunil Khilnani. And up to now, since the 50s, the history of India has been preserved in academic writings in prose, more about social economic history, peasant history and worker history, than readable tales of romping Mughals.
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Bestseller lists in India do not feature as many non-fiction books as novels…
In America, or France or Italy, you see bestseller lists have as many biographical subjects, as you have novels. Their history books outsell novels. And certainly, they get more space in the review pages than the novels do. In America, some new multi-volume biography of the American president is always there on top of the bestseller list. And that is only beginning here. There are some talented young writers like Srinath Raghavan and Sanjeev Sanyal, who are coming up writing really accessible and fabulous history. And that is finally happening now in the last three-four years.
History is boring say most students here. It is rare to find ones who think otherwise. What do you have to say about that?
At every signing queue, I have the same sort of thing happening — people come up to me saying, ‘Thank you William for writing this book because I have hated history in school. It was really boring.’ There is something very wrong about the way the subject is taught. Because this country’s history is just full of tales of bloodied conquests; it is meaty, bloody and juicy, much like the ‘Game of Thrones’. There is some terrible disconnect going on in education if that is not being conveyed.
Isn’t history writing just all about research — a desk-bound, sitting-at-the-library kind of work? But your life as a historian has involved a lot of adventure. Tell us about it.
People would tend to think that history writing is sedentary and safe — sitting in archives. And there is a great deal of that (sitting in archives) but a lot of it is not, and every so often, you have special encounters. During the research for one of my books in Kandahar, I was shot at. I have done the Indiana Jones-kind of research, dodging bullets and getting rare manuscripts and bringing it all back.
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Did you ever think of writing fiction stories?
History is full of fabulous stories. My new book, ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’, co-authored by Anita Anand, traces the journey of the diamond. In this, we have people having molten lead poured on their heads. Ahmad Shah Gali has maggots falling out of his nose as he eats because his face is separating beneath a silver mask he has made for himself due to the tumours he has all over his face. It is the most fabulous story and it is all true. Why make any up? Why make any fiction when history has the word story embedded in it
What inspires and makes you write?
My love for history inspires me. Next, I am off to see the battlefield of Plassey in Murshidabad. So before my trip, I will be reading up all about it, follow up resources, go there and be terribly excited. And then, I will go back into the library. So it is a virtuous circle —opposite of vicious circle — between travel and reading and discovery and thirst for more travel.
Journalism or writing? Which do you prefer and why?
They are two different ends of the same pens so to speak. Journalism has the pleasure of instant gratification — it is like a very nice Bengali sweet — some mishiti doi or some gulab jamun or something that you pop down and feel a delicious sugar rush hit you. It is instantaneous. But man does not live on mishit doi alone or gulab jamuns.
While a history book is like a huge Mughlai feast with enormous raan and Peshawari naan that will sustain you, and is a substantial thing, but it takes a long time to prepare. Journalism is like mishit doi and gulab jamun whereas history writing is like a huge Mughlai feast. History books are real hard work. The big books are big investments in time and resources. And they are exhausting to do and are no more fun than going to the dentist or doing finals at the universities (laughs). You know, it is a massive act of concentration and labour. But at the end of it, you do something you are very proud of, and which will stay there on the shelves, hopefully, forever.
Credit Source: The Times of India