In a freewheeling interview, peppered with his characteristic
bouts of infectious laughter, he spoke to Sanjay Austa about
White Mughals, his fascination for India and history
writing in general. Excerpts:
Why is it that no
historian explored the love affairs between the sahibs and the
While there is a
deluge of fiction writers in India, there are not many who write
non-fiction. Most of the time historians write for each other
rather than for the reader. Seema Alvi and Sanjay Subramanium
are exceptions. Thankfully for me, Indian historians are gazing
at there own navels, arguing at seminars but not writing
anything. So there is an extraordinary gap for outsiders, and
intruders and firangee plunderers like myself. (laughs)
that there is a difference between a travel writer’s account
and a historian’s account and suggest that the historian’s
account has more depth. Would you agree?
I am a historian
by training. I have every right to call myself a historian. I
don’t think I need to bow before anyone here in terms of my
academic credentials. The book draws sources from five primary
languages and it took me five years of research. Not many
historians here have that much time as they have their seminars
and students to teach. White Mughals is not a travel
book. It is a work of history.
Historians seem to
suggest that travel writers take a small piece of evidence and
build an entire edifice on it.
I regard myself as
much a historian as a travel writer. The book is minutely
researched. It has already stood the test of academic judgement
in the West. Let any historian judge it on its merit.
You said somewhere
that initially the Kirkpatrick-Khair-un-Nissa love story was
going to be just half a chapter in a book about the British ‘who
went native’. So what fascinated you so much as to spin a
500-page book out of it?
Problem of history
books is that of sources. The entire period is covered in James
Kirkpatrick’s letters to his brother. There is also this
extraordinary 650-page autobiography. The concept of narrative
history is new to India. Historians here write analytical,
economic history. No one writes narrative history — in the
sense that they are not telling the story of a life or an event.
Why do you think
they do not explore this form of history writing?
has been dominated by academia, by writers who have to guard
their backs against their colleagues. History has ceased to be
the telling of stories. It has become an academic exercise.
There is a very important seam of work now being published in
the West which tells stories. People love to read stories —
stories that are retold and recreate a period. Some of the
historians I admire in the West tended to break out of the
academia. Stevan Runciman, who wrote three volumes on the
Crusades and the highly acclaimed, Fall of Constantinople, left
Cambridge as he felt his teaching schedule prevented him from
writing. One has to break from the narrow world of academics and
Do you think
historians, both Indian and British, for some reason tried to
cover up the love affairs that were prevalent between the
British and the native women?
The affairs were
mentioned in the accounts and biographies of the time but they
were weeded out by anyone who was embarrassed by what had
happened before. The Victorians regarded 18th century as
libertine and immoral. They were equally embarrassed by what had
gone on in England. People of Boswell and Johnson’s generation
who happily and freely visited brothels were famously debauched.
This period gave way to the Victorian Period when people spent
five hours in chapels listening to epic sermons. Victorians
brought with them these changed attitudes to India and were
ashamed of how the generations preceding them had behaved.
You say the
stereotype of the British with their noses stuck in their air is
There were some
arrogant figures but there also existed a world very different
from the one-dimensional Tom-Alter stereotypes we see over and
over again. We have become so obsessed with the Raj — the
period between 1857 and 1947 — that it obscures other periods
and other possibilities. To say that all British behaved in
exactly in the same sort of way is as caricatured as saying the
Bengalis are all boring intellectuals.
Are you, through
the main theme of love affairs between British officers and
native Indian girls, suggesting the feasibility of
cross-cultural exchange and intermingling of eastern and western
Yes. I think at
this point of time we have a prejudiced American administration
preaching a particular doctrine.
The White Mughals
were not perfect. But these guys were attempting to build
bridges. At a time when it is being said civilisations can fuse,
it is important to show that they can. It is possible for
different civilisations to cohabit in a single household and in
a single generation.
Do your books
cater to a particular audience?
I write for the
British audience. It demonstrates in how much I explain. But I
have a large audience in India too. My book City of Djinns got
snooty reviews in India in the beginning but later it went on to
become a bestseller.
This is your third
book on India. What is it about India that bring writers like
yourself to the country again and again?
It is not
difficult to answer this question. Some people fancy stamps,
some railways, some pigeons (laughs). Well, I fancy India.
It is a place
where I am happy. Why I remain interested in India is that it is
so vast, so muddling, so complex. I still don’t have a hold of
the country even after knowing it for 18 years and living here
for seven years. There are still great chunks of the country I