William Dalrymple is one of the West’s pre-eminent India experts. He is the author of seven works of history and travel, including In Xanadu, The Age of Kali, City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the best-selling From the Holy Mountain, White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson, and The Last Moghal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. His acclaimed new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, is an eloquent investigation of India’s multi-faceted modern spiritual life through intimate portraits of nine everyday practitioners. He graciously conducted this email interview from his farmhouse south of Delhi.
Don George: How did you first get interested in India?
William Dalrymple: I first encountered India when I arrived, aged 18, on the foggy winter’s night of the 26th January 1984. The airport was surrounded by shrouded men huddled under shawls, and it was surprisingly cold. I knew nothing at all about India and came initially simply because my best friend at the time was interested in discovering it. I had instead wanted to go on an Assyrian archaeological dig in Iraq, but then Saddam Hussein closed the British School of Archaeology and I found myself with nine months to fill, so I bought an air ticket and pitched up. It was a complete revelation.
My childhood had been spent in rural Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth, and of my school friends I was probably the least well travelled. My parents were convinced that they lived in the most beautiful place imaginable and rarely took us on holiday, except on an annual spring visit to a corner of the Scottish Highlands even colder and wetter than home. Perhaps for this reason India had a greater and more overwhelming effect on me than it would have had on other more cosmopolitan teenagers; certainly the country hooked me from the start. I backpacked around for a few months, and hung out in Goa; but I soon found my way back to Delhi and got myself a job at a Mother Teresa’s home in the far north of the city, beyond Old Delhi.
In the afternoons, while the patients were taking their siesta, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul de sacs, feeling the houses close in around me. In particular what remained of the Red Fort of the Great Mughals kept drawing me back, and I often used to slip in with a book and spend whole afternoons there, in the shade of some cool pavilion. I quickly grew to be fascinated with the Mughals who had lived there, and began reading voraciously about them. It was the Mughals that drew me into India initially.
DG: You’ve written six books about India. What is the most surprising thing you have learned about India in your research for your books?
WD: I think above all the sheer scale of the place, the variety of different languages, religions and distinct regional cultures. India is really more a continent than a country: Delhi is quite different from Bombay, which itself is quite different from Calcutta or Madras. The snow peaks of the Himalayas, the Tibetan culture of Ladakh, the deserts of Rajasthan, the jungles of Madhya Pradesh or the backwaters of Kerala: these are all worlds apart from each other. The artistic and literary culture of this country lies as rich and thick on the ground as Italy — but here on a continental scale.
DG: What has been the most difficult of your India books and why?
WD: I think probably The Last Mughal, because of the amount of primary manuscript material I had to work through.
In the National Archives in New Delhi I found a remarkable archive of some 20,000 Urdu and Persian documents, the overwhelming majority of which had never been accessed before. These documents were the core source for the book, and have allowed the daily life of the city before and during the great rebellion of 1857 (known to Indians as the First War of Independence and the British as the Great Mutiny) to be resurrected in some detail. ‘The Mutiny Papers’ — as the collection is known — are a great unwieldy mountain of records of the Delhi courts, police, and administration during the siege: chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rolls of attendance and lists of casualties, predictions of victory and promises of loyalty, notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers, all neatly bound in string and boxed up in the cool, hushed air-conditioned vaults of the Indian National Archives.
The reason these accounts have been ignored up to now is probably largely connected to the difficulty of the late Mughal shikastah script in which the documents were written — few middle-class Indians these days know the Urdu script, and fewer still can read Mughal scribal hands. I was very lucky to have the expert assistance of Mahmood Farooqui in decoding and translating the manuscripts. But it was worth the work: The Last Mughal is the first account in English to give the Indian version of events of the largest anti-colonial uprising anywhere in the world in the entire course of the nineteenth century.
What is so strange is that the collection could not have been in a better known or more accessible archive — the National Archives of India lies in a magnificent Lutyens’-period building bang in the centre of India’s capital city. Using the Mutiny Papers and properly harvesting their riches as a source for 1857 for the first time felt at times as strange and exciting — and indeed as unlikely — as going to Paris and discovering, unused on the shelves of the Bibliotheque Nationale, the entire records of the French Revolution.
DG: Your latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, spans an immense diversity of regions and traditions. How did you select and locate your subjects?
WD: Nine Lives is about how South Asia’s diverse sacred traditions are managing to cling on in the new India. Much of course has now been written about the way that India is moving forward and transforming itself at the most incredible rate — the economy will overtake that of the US by 2050 — but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the great Indian traditions of mysticism, monasticism, music and dance.
Nine Lives explores this process through nine very personal stories — a Sufi, a possession dancer, a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a Tantric and so on, each telling their own story, aiming to show how faith and ritual are clinging on in the face of India’s commercial boom. Each life represents a different religious path, and is intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of rapid change, while revealing the perhaps surprising persistence of faith and ritual. The idea is to find out what it actually means to be a holy man, a mystical musician or a tantric minstrel seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past. I interviewed hundreds of holy men across India and Pakistan for two years and in the end wrote up the nine that I thought were most remarkable and which best illustrated the kind of changes South Asia is currently undergoing.
My travels for the book have led me to meet some extraordinary individuals. In Kannur in northern Kerala, for example, I met Hari Das, a well-builder and part-time prison warden for ten months of the year, who polices the violent running war between the convicts and gangsters of the area’s two rival political parties, the far-right RSS and the hard-left Communist Party of India. But during the theyyam dancing season, between January and March, Hari has a rather different job: Though he comes from an untouchable dalit background, he nevertheless is transformed into an omnipotent deity for two months a year, and as such is worshipped as a God. Then, at the end of March, he goes back to prison.
On another trip, to Bengal, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who wrote a scholarly paper on Tapan’s practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded rich and intriguing material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess.
It felt a little like wandering into a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The light was beginning to fade and a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic tantric skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now celebrated opthamologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumours of the family dabbling in Black Magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the States.
DG: You live in India now. When did you move there and what prompted your move?
WD: I first came to India nearly twenty-five years ago. I suppose my life cleaves in two around the date of my arrival, January 26, 1984. The first part of my life was orientated towards medieval history, bicycling round churches and going to school in Yorkshire, loving plainchant and medieval abbeys, things like that. The second part of my life has been India, the Islamic world and the inter-face between Islam and Christianity. This is now my third stint in India after that first year in 1984. Olivia and I had a flat in central Delhi in the late 1980s, which we left in 1994 – the year my second book, City of Djinns, about Delhi, appeared. In 2004, with another book, White Mughals – the story of a late-18th-century love affair between an English army officer and an Indian princess – under my belt, we returned to Delhi. We have been at our Jaunapur farm house to the south of the city for five years now. We are here because we love India and it is now the core of our personal and professional lives: Our friends are here, my books are here and my wife’s painting is here.
DG: Sometimes India seems so foreign and daunting to Western travelers. What advice would you offer Westerners who want to get the most out of a visit there?
WD: Keep your sense of humour, don’t be in a hurry and relax into the chaos. It’s a great place, but everything is slow and chaotic. Take it easy, laugh when things go wrong — as they assuredly will — and you’ll soon fall in love with it.
DG: India – in notion and in fact — encompasses so many cultures and geographies, where would you point travelers, or what would you tell travelers, who are in search of quintessentially Indian experiences?
WD: Go the villages and the countryside. It’s not a dangerous or a threatening country so take risks and go off on your own occasionally and explore — a bicycle is the perfect way to see this countryside: Just rent one and pedal off.
DG: Speaking of quintessential India, you will be accompanying a Geographic Expeditions trip to Rajasthan’s Nagaur Sufi Music Festival in February. Can you tell us more about this festival – and why you are so excited about this trip?
WD: Nagaur is an old dynastic centre of the Maharajahs of Jodhpur and after centuries of neglect it has recently been wonderful restored. To celebrate it, a wonderful festival of Sufi music was started a couple of years ago. It’s a simple cocktail: fabulous traditional music in a fabulous remote location. It’s become one of my favourite weeks of the year.
DG: What is the most important life-lesson you have learned from India?
WD: Pluralism: that there are many ways of looking at the world, of envisaging the universe, of living your life, that there are many ways up the mountain, as they put it here. I suppose the first and most important lesson I learned on the road in India is how provisional and provincial are the things I was brought up to imagine were universal.