The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 15, 2002

Meet the author
“Indian historians are navel-gazing, so there is an extraordinary gap for firangees like myself”

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple — Photo by Subhash Bhardwaj

WRITERS down the ages have held that India is so diverse and complex it eludes complete comprehension. William Dalrymple is no exception. He believes that were he to spend the next 40 years in India, he would still not understand the country. Yet, year after year this Scotland-born Indophile returns to write about India and tries to get a fix on it. Out of his highly acclaimed oeuvre of five books, three deal with India, but it is his latest fare White Mughals that might be his masterpiece. The result of a painstaking five years’ research, White Mughals is the unearthing of an important chapter of Indian history which was glossed over by historian and muzzled up by stereotypes. Through the book’s centerpiece runs the fascinating tragic love story of James Kirkpatrick, a British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Khair-un-Nissa, the great niece of the Nizam’s prime minister. Through this love affair and many such instances of multiculturalism in 18th century India, when the English eagerly adopted local customs and mannerism, the book shatters the fondly nurtured stereotype of all the Englishmen in India as snooty, snobbish overseers.

Dalrymple blames the historians for this lacuna in Indian history. He believes that the Indian historian is so embroiled in his petty inter-departmental or ideological disputes that he doesn’t write or explore anything new. Though historians dismiss Dalrymple’s historical erudition by typecasting him as a travel writer, he is one author who cannot be so easily written off. City of Djinns, his book on Delhi, was so popular that it sold a phenomenal 50,000 copies in Delhi alone. Shekhar Kapur has expressed a desire to buy the film rights of White Mughals.


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 natives earlier?

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)

Historians believe 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?

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 oneupmanship.

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 false...

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 civilisations?

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 haven’t seen.