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An Interview with William Dalrymple

September 2008
An Interview with William Dalrymple

By Murali Kamma

A coffee shop—even the small, often crowded Starbucks in Emory Village—may be convenient for meeting friends, but it’s hardly ideal for conducting an interview. Especially with somebody like William Dalrymple, author of The Last Mughal and White Mughals, among other works. Sure enough, just as we started chatting at an outside table on a pleasant afternoon, a car alarm went off nearby, making conversation difficult. But Dalrymple is a well-seasoned traveler who’s used to covering the chaotic Indian subcontinent, where he lives with his family for a good part of the year. The noise around us seemed normal to him. Looking bohemian in a casual summer shirt worn over jeans, he calmly picked up the recorder and, holding it close to his mouth, continued talking. He even got a kick out of it.

“Looks like a desi!” he whooped, as we saw a South Asian woman dash towards the agitated car. It was a false alarm, fortunately, and soon the decibel level dropped.

The Call of a City

Dalrymple was in Atlanta this summer to give a lecture on his latest book at Emory’s Woodruff Library. Set largely in Delhi during the Uprising of 1857 (as he calls it), The Last Mughal shows, from the Indian rather than the British side, how the city collapsed and the already crumbling Mughal Empire came to an end. Dalrymple relied on “20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857” for his exhaustively researched book. One of his findings in those so-called Mutiny Papers was that there is no mention of the Indian national hero Mangal Pandey. In a Bollywood film known as The Rising in English, Pandey was depicted as a leading figure of the Uprising in March of 1857. “Yet in many ways Pandey was almost irrelevant to the outbreak which took place two months later at Meerut in May,” Dalrymple writes in his book.

A devoted Delhite since the ‘80s, Dalrymple lives on a farm not far from the Indian capital. One his travelogues, The City of Djinns, is an enjoyable, well-regarded tribute to Delhi, which he first visited—and immediately fell in love with—in 1984. Having led a sheltered life in bucolic Scotland, that first trip to India acted as a “stick of dynamite,” transforming his consciousness and turning him into a writer. Otherwise, he thinks, he would have become a banker or an accountant.

“My love for Delhi comes as a great mystery to many people, not least of all to those who live there,” he declares, sipping his double-shot espresso. “I love the sense of history, with the Lodi Tombs scattered everywhere on the roundabouts. I love Rashtrapati Bhavan and I love Old Delhi. Chandni Chowk is not so different from when I first saw it 25 years ago. It’s just that Gurgaon is there, too, and that’s so often the way with development in India. Delhi has been a generous mother. It’s provided the backdrop of at least two of my books and maybe more in the future.” While agreeing that relentless growth has created serious challenges, Dalrymple points out, “There are more and more conservation groups springing up in Delhi.”

More than just an outsider with insider access, Dalrymple can be seen as a naturalized citizen of India, given his long engagement with it as a writer and resident. His articles often appear in high-profile publications in India, Britain and the United States. A notable presence in Indian literary circles (he is a founding director of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival), Dalrymple’s honors include the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Wolfson Prize for History, and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for History and Biography. His wife Olivia Fraser, whose illustrious family had links to India, is an established artist who draws inspiration from her Indian surroundings.

Indo-Pak Talk

Despite—or maybe because of—Dalrymple’s attachment to the Indian subcontinent, some of pronouncements can be startling. “You hear less and less criticism of India and more and more admiration,” he notes, speaking of Pakistan. “People there want to be like India. Although Bollywood movies are officially banned, every house in Pakistan except the most ultraconservative has stacks of them. Shah Rukh is a bigger hero in Pakistan than in India. And many are in love with Aishwarya, just as they are in India.”

He sees the India-Pakistan conflict largely as a sibling rivalry. “I’m Scottish,” he remarks, “and we have a very similar relationship with England. We’re the junior partner. So while we Scots make a great deal of noise about being the enemy of England, in reality we all go to university there if we can and get jobs in grand English institutions. India is now clearly huge, growing so fast. People know this in Pakistan.”

In the Indian weekly Tehelka, Dalrymple wrote: “In all the 20 years I have covered Pakistan, I have almost never sat at a Pakistani dinner party without being asked about the differences between the two countries: Is there any way in which Pakistan is preferable? Aren’t our women prettier? Aren’t our mangoes tastier? As a Scot, the small and forgotten neighbor to the north of onetime superpower England, I recognize the anxieties well.”

When asked if he thinks the passions dividing the two nations, especially over the troubled state of Kashmir, will dissipate in the future, Dalrymple is quick to respond. “These boundaries will cease to matter and people will visit each other across the border,” he insists, “which is what Jinnah originally expected and hoped. He was not aiming at a kind of Berlin Wall between the two countries. He thought he was going to keep his house on Malabar Hill and spend weekends in Bombay, you know. So I’m optimistic. The middle class is growing in Pakistan. They want to do business; they don’t want to fight wars.”

Pakistan, others would say, has gone into a tailspin, struggling through one crisis after another. That volatility, coupled with a spike in militant activity, has become a huge cause for concern. It’s one the world’s 10 most failed states, as per Foreign Policy magazine this year. Dalrymple, though, says Indians should have better expectations, given the political and economic changes taking place in Pakistan. He also emphasizes the cultural ties. “They eat the same food, read the same kinds of magazines, watch the same movies. So what’s the problem?” Pointing out that “animosities were no less formidable” among European powers in the last century, he adds, “Who would have said that, at the end of the First World War or the Second World War, Britain and Germany could be in the EU together?”

Then Dalrymple makes a prediction that would shock many. “I know I might be wrong—it’s only an intuition—but I’d put a small bet ($100, say) that the Kashmir issue would be resolved within the next decade.” Not a few commentators would disagree. “Tragically, I see Kashmir as a historian,” Ramachandra Guha told Khabar. “I see the conflict carrying on for some time yet.”

Dalrymple remains an optimist—or is it idealist?—and the unyielding hostility seen in certain quarters of both nations doesn’t shake his confidence. “India is my first love and my home, but I have friends on both sides,” he says. “It’s still more of a difference to fly from Delhi to Kerala than it is to fly from Delhi to Lahore. Delhi and Lahore are very similar cities, while Delhi and Kerala are utterly different in every way. So while I agree there’s always room for things to go wrong, I think as the economies grow, as education grows, as democracy grows and as globalization grows, the odds increasingly must be on the side of peace and on the side of understanding.” Dalrymple notes how Britain and the IRA, after being on “a very difficult road” for a long time, successfully negotiated an agreement.

What about the growing number of terrorist incidents in the Indian subcontinent? Isn’t the religious militancy one sees today a totally different kind of animal?

“It’s a different animal, but it’s not a totally different animal. At the end of the day, people rise up and take to weapons for a variety of reasons and because of religious rhetoric—as they did in 1857. That often clothes a much wider range of entirely secular grievances. Strip back the grievances and drain the swamp; certainly, you’ll still have a hardcore, but they’re far smaller and can be more easily isolated and dealt with.”

Dalrymple’s interests are by no means confined to the Mughals, white or otherwise, and British India. He has written about Christianity in the Middle East, and his current project focuses on unorthodox Indian traditions that flourished before Hinduism, Islam and Christianity became entrenched in their currents forms. His new book, he states, will encompass tantrism and Sufism, but also southern devadasis and eastern bauls. Apart from books, Dalrymple has hosted U.K.-based television and radio programs on India.

The Fall of a City

Coming back to 1857, the subject of Dalrymple’s most recent book, why does he refer to the events of that year as the Uprising?

“The term ‘Indian Mutiny’ is flawed because it was clearly more than a mutiny; it started as a mutiny but then spread to a whole range of civilian groups,” Dalrymple responds. “The term ‘First War of Independence’ is flawed because it’s modern political language. You’ll never find the term ‘azadi’ (independence) being used by the rebels of 1857. It’s a term they themselves would not have understood.”

About 85 percent of the rebels were Hindus and, intriguingly, the Uprising was focused on restoring a greatly diminished, crippled Mughal Empire. Out of the 139,000 Bengal Army sepoys who rebelled against the British, 100,000 converged on Delhi, where Bahadur Shah Zafar II—the last Mughal, as it turned out—still lived. He was an octogenarian mystic poet and “a spectacularly inappropriate military leader.” Though he had no real power, “personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant, and likeable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens, and an amateur architect.” His mother had been a Hindu and he was known to celebrate both Muslim and Hindu festivals.

The Uprising began when 300 sepoys from Meerut swept into Delhi in May of 1857 and tried to put Zafar back on the throne. “It’s interesting that he had that symbolic pull,” Dalrymple says. “What does that say about people’s attitudes to the Mughals—100 years ago, 150 years ago? It implies a completely different set of perceptions of the Mughal rule.”

Yet, even as the helpless Zafar realized, this bold—and foolhardy—attempt was doomed from the start. The battles, fought at close quarters, were fierce and vengeful. “The siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom could retreat,” Dalrymple writes. “There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides the combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance.”

The Uprising was over, decisively, by September of 1857.  Zafar, made to leave Delhi on a bullock cart, spent the rest of his days in Burma (now Myanmar) in exile. The fighting may have lasted just a few months, but once the British defeated the rebels and consolidated their power in India, the Raj endured for 90 years. The scarring events of 1857 discredited the Indo-Persian and Central Asian sphere of influence, Dalrymple notes, and “forcibly grafted Westernization on India, which in turn produced the first crop of lawyers who wanted independence.”

Though British colonialism’s “negative features are well known and very clear,” Dalrymple thinks Indians now have a more nuanced view of it, since they clearly seek—rightly or wrongly—to be part of the Western sphere of influence rather than the earlier one, from which 19th-century Indians were so abruptly severed. It’s the English language, for instance, that holds sway in India today.

“The Empire is striking back and that, ironically, is a partial consequence of colonialism,” Dalrymple adds. “And so the mixed nature of the legacy—good and bad—is clearer now than it would have been to Indians in the 1970s, when they would have had an entirely negative view of colonialism.”   


What caused the Uprising of 1857?

Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain

—attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar II (the last Mughal)

As Dalrymple noted, and later repeated in his lecture at Emory, there were a number of secular reasons for the Uprising. But what’s most striking is how religion—or rather religious difference—played a dominant role. “The rhetoric of the rebels concerns religion, just like today jehadis have a whole range of grievances against the West but they express it in religious terms,” he says. “So, in 1857, there was a whole range of extremely concrete grievances—the annexation of kingdoms, including Jhansi and Avadh, the high tax paid by peasants, etc.”

The British Indian army’s fateful decision to grease cartridges with cow and pig fat triggered an explosive reaction from outraged Hindu and Muslim sepoys. What’s not as widely known is that the army, realizing its blunder, quickly withdrew the cartridges. By then, however, that gesture had become meaningless.

“It’s a measure of how ultra-suspicious everyone had become about British motives in matters of religion,” Dalrymple adds. “Missionaries who’d been banned from the East India Company soil for 200 years were allowed in the 1830s. They produced these tracts openly denouncing Indian religion, speaking in extremely rude Islamophobic and anti-Hindu terms. The evangelicals were especially noisy and there were enough of them. And people generally believed, not without reason, that the British had a plan for mass conversion.”

So, broadly speaking, it was the rise of British power in India and the spread of evangelical Christianity that led to the tumultuous events of 1857.

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