William Dalrymple, the author of The City of Djinns, is all set to write his new book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, a thrilling, stranger than fiction history of the most celebrated and mythologised jewel in the world.
Dalrymple who has been living in India for the last 40 years has written books on Delhi, Hyderabad, The Afghan War and the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar. At the unveiling of the Jaipur Literary Festival in New Delhi, Dalrymple spoke to Majid Alamon history, Delhi, books and much more. Excerpts:
You belong to Scotland ~ here we called it the West. But your works are primarily focussed in South Asia, especially India. Western writers writing on East has been problematic in the past, which Edward Said referred to as Orientalism. So what is your line of approach on Asia, which is in a power dynamics that is considered problematic?
First of all Orientalism was published in 1977. I was 12- years- old when Orientalism was published. So you had a whole new generation to rethink and rework. I think in University first year itself people would assume that every western writer writes about India with the same Orientalist perspective. I think the world has moved on, but after 1977. It’s old news. I would say. Edward Said reviewed my book and wrote nicely on my book on Palestine ~ From the Holy Mountain. We were friends. But Orientalism is, I think, as old as Indira Gandhi.
If I could just go back to the first question, how do you think your writing on Indian history is different or similar to an Indian writing about the country’s history?
I think to say that all westerners look on India in the same way and all that ~ such a thing as Indian gaze ~ it’s extremely dangerous. It’s like saying that all Englishmen wear topies or all Frenchman have bad breath or Italians are good lovers. I don’t think that there is one western gaze. I have been writing for 30 years, and a book like White Mughals is all about the more complicated issues.
In your book, The City of Djinns, you talk at length on Sikh riots and mention Partition riots. How similar do you see Delhi today? Has Delhi ever been different to you?
Delhi was then about half a million, and today it’s about 26 million. No it’s not the same. But everything I loved in 1991 is still there. Nizamuddin more or less is still the same, the main monuments exactly famous 40 years earlier are still there. Everything I loved is still there. It’s like the rings of a tree, the old rings are still there but there are more rings on the outside.
You are a historian. The purpose of reading history has often been debated in India and elsewhere. What is your view on this?
I think history is destined always to repeat itself.
Your books are coming in the reverse chronological order: The City of Djinns in 1994, White Mughals in 2002, The Last Mughal in 2006, Return of a King in 2012 and at last Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond in 2017.
What I am doing now is the beginning of the East India Company, back to the Plassey and all of that.
Do you plan to go backward and write a book on Delhi Sultanate or early Mughals?
I would love to. It’s unwritten and there is a lot to write.
In an article you talk about the British colonisers plundering the wealth of the colonies. There is a debate going on about reparations to colonies. Could you elaborate?
The book on the company, The Anarchy, is coming out next September. I am nearly finished. I am on chapter seven or nine. Three more weeks to keep pushing.
There is a difference between myth and history. Often myth is spread through power falsifying history. It is also happening in India, where history textbooks are being changed. What do you have to say on this?
This is a subject I have written about a lot over the years. I think that there is a majoritarian government in power at the moment. We have seen the renaming of roads. But I think, at the same time all these monuments used to be completely empty and there were no organised walks going on. But now there is a hunger to learn about history.
In old days people used to regard history as boring and they were taught badly in schools. I think there is reawakening of interest. We have seen also the revival of conservationist movement that comes alongside. So I think it’s not a very gloomy picture. For all the ignorance from some on the right, there is so much hunger for knowledge and interest in the past. The nuances and the truth will come out.
Apart from history, travelling and South Asia, what are your other interests?
Art, history, literature, music and landscape.
What is your interest behind writing about South Asia. You have written on Delhi and Afghanistan.
It’s where I live. I have been here since I was 18. It’s my home.