Free Press Journal

William Dalrymple: Everything I love is in India

FOLLOW US:

Author William Dalrymple shares with Boski Gupta what attracts him to India and why he thinks Jaipur is the best location for a literary event in this country

William Dalrymple isn’t pleased when India is called his second home. “It’s been more than 30 years now that I am here. It’s very much home,” he says. The Scottish journalist-travel writer was just 18 when he came to India and fell in love with the ruins of history in this country, hence it was obvious that he would go on to write books on the glorious and bloody past of this country. While winning numerous awards (Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Hemingway Award), the author highlighted India on the global map with his books, not because of her stories but because of her history. His trilogy on Mughal Empire is a voluminous retelling of the medieval times backed by thorough research and understanding of the socio-cultural environment of that era. As the curator of Jaipur Literature Festival, Dalrymple placed India in the bucket list of every booklover in the world. JLF is the world’s most popular free book fest and is expected to have a footfall of almost half a million this year. Excerpts from an interview…

What attracts you to history?


I have always been attracted to history, right from my childhood. Even before I came to India, I spent a lot of my time travelling and admiring the standing stones, pre-historic past and cultures. And when I fell in love with India I was literally fascinated by its history. I was 18 when I first came here, and now I’m 52 but my love for this country is still the same. And I am still very much here… (laughs).

There are so many reasons to love this country. Initially I thought it was the history of this country but eventually I realised there’s much more to India. I love the lights, I love the weather, the food, the fruits, the vegetables, the people, the most beautiful women in the world are from India, beaches of Goa, deserts of Rajasthan, the gorgeous paddy fields of South, the landscapes in the hills… I love everything about this country. I came here as a journalist and started writing about history…

But why Indians are averse to history?

Well, that’s because history is taught very badly here. Narrative and stories are inherent in world history and that’s how it’s taught outside the country but in India it’s all about learning updates and that’s why it becomes incredibly boring. But interest in history is there, that’s why my books sell (chuckles). If people didn’t like history, they wouldn’t read about it after school. But it’s changing. When I came here, Delhi’s historical places were mostly in ruins, deeply ignore; but now there are heritage walks, Delhi on Foot and what not history revival walks going on… My Instagram feed is full of something or the other on these things. It’s a miracle that in schools they have made Indian history boring!

There are many ways dealing with the past, remembering the past. And Indian history is full of life, it’s vast, everything about India’s history is bestseller. India has always been marked by its fiction but the non-fiction section is opening up.

You latest book Kohinoor too has traces of fiction too…

No, there’s no fiction in Kohinoor. It’s all research…

But there’s so much drama…

(Laughs) Drama is inherent in this country. You just can’t make it up. These things happened. The kind of non-fiction I like reading has the narrative quality of the novel and often uses the techniques of novel but it has to be written very strictly in absolute fact. If I say it’s a sunny day then it needs to have a proof of sunny day. And I don’t want to write fiction. I am non-fiction writer. I am just done with the book on East India Company in India and maybe after that I will write a travel book, on India!

You have seen India from really close quarters. What has changed in these 30 years?

Delhi is unrecognisably different from the city I first came to in 1984. There weren’t so many cars; there was countryside between the city Delhi and Qutub Minar but now it is the metropolis of the vast population, there have been huge changes but everything I love is here…

But still you chose Jaipur over Delhi for your Literature festival…

We took over Jaipur Lit Fest from already existing Virasat festival but actually it was a very smart move. You see the most successful lit fests are not in capital city they are always in places outside or near capital city, like Hay in England, or Jaipur here. So people can go out for weekend, do some shopping spend some good time, do some sightseeing and still enjoy literature. I am very proud of how JLF has come shaped up. How it has changed from just 10 people in the first session to almost half a million people expected this year. I still remember how in the first year our Japanese tourists got lost while going to Nahargarh Fort (laughs). It has become a huge enterprise, and of course it’s not just me but the whole team who feels proud of it. We never thought we could achieve so much in so little time, we’re doubling every year. It’s a case study of Harvard Business School now.

What makes it different from others?

First of all its unique, there are several others like Edinburgh Book Fest, Brooklyn near New York, Hay in England but they are all ticketed. We are the only one which’s free. There’ also one Indian aspect here; we have not just the international authors but also writers from the other side of the spectrum. We have authors who are hugely popular in Hindi or Malayalam or Bengali or Telugu. This also attracts the crowd and makes them relate to the author. People can talk to greatest writers from India and around the world. And we also throw good parties (chuckles), we have good music gigs, dances, we have very good ambience. I think that also makes is stand apart. The intellectual serious discussions in the day followed by music and dances in the evening. It’s more like an Indian wedding!

How do you shortlist the speakers?

My list is mostly international but also marks history or books which I may have read and like while Namita (Gokhale) looks into Indian authors but also may invite some international authors she may have heard speak somewhere. So there’s no set pattern to selection. We also reach out to authors whose books we admire, or someone who has won any award recently, or spoke something notable or was in news…

A lot of debate going on freedom of speech these days…

Every generation of writers has to defend their freedom of speech, and there have been incidents in modern India where freedom of speech has been curtailed, writers being assassinated but having said that I would still believe India remains largely way ahead in our region in context to the freedom of speech. We personally have never been asked to make changes in our schedule. Till now it has not affected the fest as such.