History is in battle with present politics

In conversation with William Dalrymple

Historian and Jaipur Literature Festival co-director William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022. Photo IPP
William Dalrymple, historian, writer, and Jaipur Literature Festival co-director at JLF 2022. Photo IPP

Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar spoke with historian and Jaipur Literature Festival co-director William Dalrymple at the recently concluded 2022 on-ground Jaipur Literature Festival about writing in Covid times, JLF Soneva Fushi, and the challenges in organizing a literature festival in the new normal, and more.

Indian Printer & Publisher (IPP): Tell us about your latest books.

William Dalrymple: I have just produced a book set of my four company books which have taken the last twenty years to write. It began with the White Mughals in 1999, then came The Last Mughal, then The Return of the King and The Anarchy, and now they will be put into proper chronological order with The Anarchy at the beginning, and the last book at the end. They are out now in bookshops near you with Bloomsbury Publishing.

William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and The Anarchy on display at the Full Circle Book Store at Jaipur Literature Festival 2022. Photo IPP

IPP: How did you become a historian?

William Dalrymple: I became a historian by studying history and writing history books! I studied history at Cambridge and history has always been my great love. What has slightly changed is that earlier I was interested in very early archaeology and early medieval history and I went and spent 20 years writing on the eighteenth century – which I wouldn’t have guessed I would be doing as a teenager or when I was in college.

That has slowed down now and I am back to my first love, and the book I am currently writing is called The Golden Road which will be out with Bloomsbury next year. It is about the diffusion of Indian and Indic culture, Buddhism going off through Afghanistan to China, Hinduism and Buddhism going South East to South East Asia, and Indian numbers and science going west to the Arab world and then to Europe.

IPP: Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

William Dalrymple: With history books, it is not so much as inspiration, which is more what happens in fiction where you have some lightbulb moment about the great functional world. With history, you work and labor hard with primary and secondary sources until you think you have understood your subject. There is still a measure of inspiration in the sense – how do you shape this material, how do you write it and how do you form it into a narrative.

My books always have a very strong narrative element. Quite a lot of history books written in India are analytical and often deal with social and economical forces and the influence of years of dominance and Marxist history here in India. I have always believed that human beings shape events. I would say my work is much more biographical and much more narrative-based.

IPP: As you started out as a history student, what advice would you give to history students who intend to become writers?

William Dalrymple: There are many different things you can do with history and many historians go on to become academic historians in colleges but an increasing number of historians work outside the academic establishments – which means that you don’t have to teach students and spend your lives doing academic administration. You can spend more time in the archives researching it.

One often finds that historians in academia almost end their research when they finish their PhD and end up getting lost in great loops of exams and entrances and finals and rounds of seminars. While if you are working outside the establishment, rightly, you have the ability to spend the rest of your lives in the archives reading and that is the path that I have chosen, and others like Ramachandra Guha have done the same. But it is a choice, some people love teaching and it is a very important profession. I love writing and that is the profession that I have chosen.

IPP: The current government is changing the course of Indian history. Would you like to comment on that?

William Dalrymple: Well, there have always been elements of history being destroyed. The world is a dynamic place. For everything that is built, there are some things which are destroyed, wars happen, and so on. Certainly, there are many parts in the world where history is in battle with present politics, and another example being Israel-Palestine where, for example, the Israeli state highlights the Jewish remains and often demolishes Byzantine or Arab settlements or doesn’t highlight them in the presentation of the ruins or dig through other layers to get to the Jewish remains.

Likewise, here obviously, we are in the middle of a saffron resurgence, people are much more interested now in Hindu history. And there are good and bad things in that. On one hand, one sees the Mughals denigrated which I think is a bad thing because they are fascinating and a great empire.

On the other hand, what is great is that people learn more about Vijayanagara, the Cholas, the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Rashtrakutas, and all the rest of them, and the book I recommend is Anirudh Kanisetti’s new book Lords of the Deccan which seems to me to wonderfully bring alive the medieval Hindu kingdoms of the South, which is a positive thing.

IPP: Why do you focus on the English East India Company in your writing?

William Dalrymple: I have done four books on the period between the end of the Mughal dynasty in India and the beginning of the Company Raj which is slightly different. I have never really written about the great Mughals like Jehangir and Shah Jahan – that’s before my period. My period really begins with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and I deal with the period when the French East India Company and the British East India Company are asserting themselves and that is what the four company quartet books are all about.

William Dalrymple’s second book in The Company quartet The Last Mughal on display at the Full Circle Book Store at Jaipur Literature Festival 2022. Photo IPP

IPP: Would you like to comment on the depiction of history in school textbooks in India?

William Dalrymple: Well, I am out of date. I haven’t written about the textbooks in India for twenty years. But I think it is a very problematic thing what to teach your children when history itself is embattled and historians disagree on the past.

The old history books written in the past by the previous generation were generally written by Marxists. They stress the unity of the Hindus and the Muslims in the aftermath of the bloodshed of the partition and they dwell mainly on social and economic forces.

I think, there is a very wise feeling that many parts of Indian history are ignored and the Southern kingdoms of the Pallavas and the Cholas are ignored but more importantly many people feel that these textbooks are just very boring and very dry. And almost every fan letter I have ever got from an Indian reader always begins with – “I hated history in school but…” and so the biggest problem, I see, is not political but the fact that these books are so definitely dry and the Indian exam system seems to favor parrot learning of texts and remembering of dates which is not what history should be about. It should be about understanding the forces that shape human history.

IPP: Indian history writing has recently gained prominence in the literary scene. What are your thoughts on this?

William Dalrymple: It is odd that there has been so little good history available. When I first came here twenty years ago, India was dominating the world with its wonderful fiction writers – Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, and so on winning all the prizes but none of the non-fiction prizes were being won by Indians and to this date, for the non-fictional Booker which is called the Baillie Gifford Prize, only two Indians have ever been shortlisted which is Ramachandra Guha and Samanth Subramanian. So its very odd as you have now, in this country, a very strong tradition of fiction and a much less strong tradition of non-fictional writing which includes the writing of history. Indian academic historians have been guilty of only writing for each other and engaging in their own debates within the ivory towers of conferences and so on. And perhaps not reaching out like in the manner that the British and American historians do, in the equivalent to Stephen Greenblatt, the professor of Shakespeare at Harvard, whose book The Swerve – How the Renaissance Began sold over a million copies and was number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

You couldn’t point to a single Indian historian that has successfully won all the literary prizes and become a bestseller. It’s odd but it is all changing now – we have wonderful Indian historians such as Manu S Pillai, Ira Mukhoty, and Aanchal Malhotra. This is a very good thing and it is about time it happened.

IPP: How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your writing?

William Dalrymple: As far as writers and writing is concerned, it made very little difference. We are probably the community that is least affected because we anyway sit at home and stare at our screens. If you are writing a book, you are effectively locked down anyway.

I am going to start writing my new book next week and it will be just like lockdown, I will be locked out, I won’t be going out and I will have a boring time like another lockdown all over again. Many people reported, in fact, at this year’s festival that writers have become more prolific than before, because they had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go – no festivals to go to, no lectures to give and many of the books which are being given platforms at this year’s festival are the books that were written during the lockdown in those circumstances. We are now getting to see a rush of pandemic written books appearing and many of them are very good.

IPP: If someone wants to submit their draft to a publisher, what advice would you give him/her?

William Dalrymple: I am not a publisher, I am a writer but my advice is really simple – you have to make your proposal, which should be probably not much longer than 10 or 12 pages, instantly attractive and as brilliantly crafted as you can. Don’t dash off a quick idea on the back of an envelope – this is like writing a cheque to yourself and if you write a brilliant proposal, you can get a large sum of money and support yourself through the difficult process of writing your first book but if you don’t produce a good proposal you could end up with no advance. The proposal is the most important thing of all – it takes even more trouble than the finished book.

IPP: This is the first edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival after two pandemic-ridden years. What challenges did you face while organizing this edition?

William Dalrymple: Well, there are still many countries where flights and visas are not available to India. We have always had a mix of one-third firangi authors coming in to two-thirds authors from around the South Asian subcontinent. So, this year very few Pakistanis, very few Bangladeshis, and almost no foreigners outside England and America – we have had none of our usual Caribbean poets, none of our Latin American novelists, none of our usual American politicians, we have had one or two Americans and one or two Brits but that has mostly been on Zoom so we have had a very internationally flavored Zoom hybrid beginning to the festival followed by a more heavily Indian and local on-ground festival but that again has its positive elements – we have had six or seven spectacular Indian art history sessions and an awful lot of fascinating political discussions. So, it’s like a roundabout, what you lose in cosmopolitanism and internationalism, you gain in in-depth study of Indian art, culture, origin, and politics.

IPP: Tell us about the first edition of the upcoming JLF Soneva Fushi.

William Dalrymple: This is one of the great resorts of the world and it could be a lovely treat for all of us to go there. We are all exhausted after the JLF and I think we are all secretly thinking this is going to be part holiday as well as a literary festival. I can’t wait for it. We have an amazing list of speakers. I mean, no one would ever refuse an invitation to best resorts of the Maldives. So, we have been able to get an extraordinary lineup – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stephen Fry, Andre Aciman, Peter Frankopan. We have never had such an amazing line-up – everyone said yes!

But the main work of the festival, I don’t wish in any way to diminish our Maldives edition, which is going to be a terrific treat for everyone but its only 30 writers, and our main work is here in Jaipur where its 300 writers and an amazing range of sessions available. Normally, we are completely free but this year we had to charge a little bit as our finances are a bit pretty rocky after the pandemic and we are trying to avoid firing our staff, to be honest, we just need the money to keep going so we had to charge this.

Hopefully, we are going to go back to free entry next year and be back to our normal size. A little bit unusual this year. Some people said that it was an improvement, some people found it a bit overwhelming as compared to the vast crowds that used to turn up.

IPP: Would you like to give a message to our readers?

William Dalrymple: Keep Reading!

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