William Dalrymple: Going Native

Photo courtesy Penguin India, so it's Dalrymple at his best

After nearly two decades in India, which he now calls home, it seems rather obvious to ask William Dalrymple if he has ‘gone native’ and become an Indophile. But one needs a conversation opener, so one goes ahead and asks the obvious. Sitting by the pool at Taj Bengal, Dalrymple smiles wryly and says, “I should think so.”

The boy who grew up near the Firth of Forth in Scotland has raised his three children in this country, and clearly, India has finally, and firmly, taken to him. His latest book Nine Lives (Bloomsbury, Rs 499, hardcover) has, in his own words, sold 35,000 copies in India within two weeks of its release and “gone straight to the top of the charts”. He says this quite nonchalantly, but adds, with a certain quiet pride, that this is his first book to sell more copies in India than it has in Britain.

The relative brevity of this work may have contributed to its popularity. “I was very clear that I wanted to write a shorter book after the last two monsters,” he says. The monsters in question are White Mughals and The Last Mughal, which boosted Dalrymple’s credentials as a historian, but drew him away from the kind of ‘travel writing’ that most of his readers have come to expect. “I think those two were too much for a lot of people,” he laughs. “And I had to get out after 10 years in the National Archives.”

With Nine Lives, Dalrymple is back to talking about people and places, but with an underlying theme. These are nine people who represent different religious faiths or paths, and most of them have found these paths through deeply moving personal experiences. The people themselves tell the stories, with Dalrymple acting largely as a medium to transmit them to the world.

How difficult was it not to become involved with these people? “I think there’s a difference between being moved and being involved. At the end of the day, I’m no more involved than you are, but I was certainly moved,” Dalrymple explains, and then laughs, “Until April, there was a lot of me in the book.” Indeed, in the initial stages, Nine Lives ran into nearly double the 300-odd pages that it does now. “I cut and polished, cut and polished,” Dalrymple sighs.

Helping him in his efforts was wife Olivia Fraser, his “best and most vicious” critic who has, as usual, done some of the illustrations for the book. As for the ‘real’ critics, who would have liked Nine Lives to be a more comprehensive account of modern religion, Dalrymple says, “This is not about kar sevaks or jihadis, or about politics of any kind. It’s about individual lives.” It’s also about Dalrymple’s love for Chola bronzes, rural West Bengal and baul music, and about experiences like watching naga sadhus rushing to the sangam like “a herd of wildebeest, ash-smeared, c**ks hanging”.

Along the way, Dalrymple has realised that India’s rural-urban divide really isn’t that difficult to bridge, though he does get the occasional query like, ‘Why only religious faiths? What’s wrong with writing about computer engineers in Gurgaon?’ He has also, gleefully, observed a growing revival of the market for non-fiction books in India. “The non-fiction XI teams has some killer batsmen and bowlers now, like VS Naipaul and Suketu Mehta,” he says gravely. Let’s just call Dalrymple the all-rounder, then?

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