History meets literature in his diary
As the dust settles on 2012, and his Afghanistan sojourn, bestselling historic non-fiction author William Dalrymple hopes the New Year will see more Indian biographers and historians write for the general and global reader, even as he gears for the film adaptation of White Mughals and another edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Excerpts from an interview, flagging off our series on trends for 2013
You revel in historic subjects — would you call yourself more a historian than a writer?
It’s very revealing that you assume historians are a different species to writers! The historians I most admire, from Gibbon through to Sir Steven Runciman, Simon Schama, Anthony Beevor and Maya Jasanoff are all fine prose stylists. They also have a great sense of narrative — the art of taking raw archive research and turning it into a gripping story. A great historian is made by his research; but he then has the choice as to whether he writes it up academese or literary prose. It’s up to him.
The ideal, as far as I’m concerned, is surely to do groundbreaking research, and then write it up in prose of great clarity and beauty. Few of us manage that, but it’s certainly what I struggle and attempt to do.
Your latest book shifts the focus towards Afghanistan. Why does Asia fascinate and naturally, hold centrestage in your writings?
India is where I have lived for nearly 30 years and has become my adopted home. I spend ten months of every year here, most of my closest friends are here, my house and life is here, so it’s hardly surprising that it should lie at the heart of my writing too.
As for this book marking a shift towards Afghanistan — well, yes and no. Much of the action is set there, yes, but it’s a very Indian book. The sepoys who fight the war are from Bengal and Bihar; the war is waged from Kolkata; the costs bankrupt the East India Company and the crushing defeat suffered by the British at Afghan hands inspires the leaders of the great uprising of 1857.
Among the cast of characters are Ahmed Shah Durrani, Ranjit Singh, the Amirs of Sindh, the Mughal Emperor Akbar II, the Governor General Lord Auckland, and his sister Emily Eden. I see this book as the third part of the East India Company Trilogy, I began with White Mughals and which ends with Last Mughal. The books cover the period 1800- 1857, and tells the story of the momentous changes which those years brought to the relationship of Britain and India.
As one of the driving forces behind the Jaipur Literature Festival, what can we look forward to in this edition?
We’ve got the highest- powered line- up that we’ve ever fielded. Among the international list — the desi list is programmed by my colleague Namita Gokhale — we have critics Homi Bhabha, Amit Chaudhuri and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; novelists Howard Jacobson, Manil Suri, Hisham Matar, Linda Grant, Nadeem Aslam, Sebastian Faulks, Zoe Heller and Aminatta Forna; historians Faisal Devji, Orlando Figes, Frank Dikotter David Gilmour and Tom Holland; thinkers and public intellectuals like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash; poets like John Burnside and Simon Armitage; economists like Nandan Nilekani, Ruchir Sharma and Edward Luce; and travel writers like Pico Iyer, Peter Hessler, Tim Parks and Monisha Rajesh. We have five winners of the Pulitzer, three of the Booker, two of the Samuel Johnson and one of the Nobel.
Your bestseller, White Mughals, will soon be adapted into a movie; could you throw some light on this?
Sure. Movies are interminable things to get off the ground and we’re now on the third attempt with White Mughals, which will be a very big budget and ambitious project to get off the ground.
The producer is Frank Doelger, the man behind Game of Thrones, and the director is Ralph Fiennes aka Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter films, and the new M in the next Bond. If anyone can get it off the ground, it’s those two. We are currently at scripting stage.
Looking ahead to 2013, is the Indian literary process in good hands?
Are our authors getting their due, finally, within the country readers and beyond? I think India has been going through an amazing literary renaissance for a quarter of a century. With a few exceptions like Jhumpa Lahiri, Jeet Thayil, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga and Manu Joseph I’m not sure the new generation of Indian novelists in English are yet quite as accomplished as the generation, which preceded them — Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie. For that you have to cross the border to the Pak A- Team of Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammad Hanif and Nadeem Aslam: all four of them are producing real masterworks.
But I do think there is an incredible generation of non- fiction writers at work here today: Pankaj Mishra, Aman Sethi, Sonia Faleiro, Siddarth Mukherjee, Basharat Peer, Samanth Subramaniam and most talented of all, Suketu Mehta.
As a keen reader of the Indian literary landscape, are there genres that some of our writers shy away from, and why?
So far, India has produced, surprisingly, few internationally successful and prizewinning biographers and narrative historians. There are many very fine historians out there — Partha Chatterjee, Sanjay Subramaniam, Ram Guha, Sugata Bose, and many more writing in Hindi and Bengali, but in my opinion, and some may disagree with this, they tend to lean more towards addressing their academic colleagues in the social sciences and less towards a general or international audience.
It is certainly the case that we haven’t yet seen Indian historians and biographers seizing the big international non- fiction and history prizes — the Samuel Johnson, the Pulitzer, the Wolfson, in the way we regularly see them seizing the prizes for novels, and even fewer are dominating the serious non- fiction bestseller lists. There is a lot of talent there and this may soon change: the year has seen Pankaj Mishra enter the fray with his remarkable From The Ruins of Empire. So watch this space.
Finally, after Afghanistan, which region are you hoping to conquer in your next title?
It’s back to India for me. The title will focus on some sort of sweeping cultural India.