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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Rajasthan…Desert Dreams

Rajasthan… land of kings… is just about the most overused phrase to describe the state, but I couldn’t start this piece without it. The thing about Rajasthan is that there’s so much of royal grandeur on display that you generally overlook everything else, and the loss is yours. At the same time, it is impossible to take in the whole of Rajasthan on a single trip, so it is up to you to choose between royal grandeur and everything else. And then go back for more.

The single biggest advantage of a holiday in Rajasthan is its tourist friendliness, not surprising for a state that earns huge revenues from tourism, but the Rajasthanis (not to be confused with Rajputs) are genuinely happy to welcome you to their state, and their homes too, as we found out.

Our trip was slightly unconventional in that we chose the unusual (and very expensive) mode of traveling to our destinations in a rented car that was ours for 10 days, since Rajasthan has an excellent road network. This was partly because we had our year-old son with us, and partly because we were able to hire a car at a decent discount from Delhi thanks to friends. But I would not recommend this for everyone, because apart from everything else, the tourist transport system in Rajasthan is quite adequate.

The conventional starting point of a holiday in Rajasthan has always been Jaipur (mainly because it has the state’s most important airport and railhead), which is where we began, too. Since any guidebook will tell you what to see in Jaipur (don’t miss Amer fort on the way from Delhi), and since I have a word count to think of, I will simply tell you that Jaipur is the best place to shop for all those Rajasthani artifacts because of the sheer variety and price ranges. The other good thing about Jaipur is that it can be your base for road trips to Ranthambhor and Sariska tiger reserves (about four and two hours away, respectively), and the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur (about four hours again).

Jaipur is also teeming with quality hotels (which was a problem for us because we had to choose relatively modest accommodation to make up for the car!) but the same does not hold true for Ajmer, the next stop for us. While the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) bungalow is a good option (as was the case in most of the destinations we visited), it is quite often full. However, Ajmer is more famed for its other specialties, such as the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the Brahma temple at nearby Pushkar, which also hosts the renowned annual camel fair, and the museum, which used to be Emperor Akbar’s residence.

From Ajmer, we traveled to Chittorgarh, which for me was the highpoint of our trip. The place is just steeped in so many ancient memories – of Meerabai, Rani Padmini and her jauhar, Pannabai and her incredible sacrifice (the government circuit house here is named after her), the goddess Chittoreswari – that it was tough tearing ourselves away from the town.

Before we left, we made sure we visited Nathdwara and Haldighati, one famed for its temple, the other for being the Waterloo of Rana Pratap. The usual practice is to go on to Mt Abu from Udaipur, but we gave it a miss owing to time constraints. And it really is a miss, because the sheer beauty of the temples defies belief.

Instead, we went on to Udaipur, the city of lakes, one of which was setting for the Bond film Octopussy, which any guide will proudly tell you. The lakes here are indeed astonishing, and even more astonishing is the Lake Palace hotel (where we didn’t stay). Sadly, we remember Udaipur more as the place where my son fell ill, and where we were welcomed into the home of a doctor who lived next door to our hotel, who treated my son and refused to charge a penny for it.

Next stop: Jodhpur, which is the busiest city in Rajasthan after Jaipur, and where we didn’t spend too much time, but only visited the fort. Our target was Jaisalmer, which, we were told, was best approached by the overnight train from Jodhpur, because if we went by road, we would have to travel through miles of scrub desert with scant human habitation, which was not a very wise thing to do for several reasons.

So the train it was, and a numbingly cold journey through a January desert night. Indeed, it was so cold that when we got off the train at Jaisalmer next morning, we had trouble gripping the handle of the Jeep in which we traveled to the circuit house. As the sun rose higher, the day warmed up, and we set off for Sam, 45 km away, very near the border with Pakistan, and a sort of picnic spot amid endless sand dunes (a large part of the Thar desert is scrubland, and Sam is one of the few places where you can see the more conventional and camera-friendly dunes), where you can also take a camel ride. We did, on a dyspeptic specimen which broke wind constantly and moved with utmost reluctance, so we got off before time!

Back to Jodhpur by train, from where we drove back to Jaipur for an overnight stay, and then back to Delhi. Before I leave you for good, though, I have to agree with your accusation that I haven’t described all the fortresses and temples and palaces of Rajasthan. But that would take up a book, so I hope you’ve got the drift. As for the book, you’ll know when it comes!

The palace of Rana Kumbha inside Chittor Fort

The palace of Rana Kumbha inside Chittor Fort

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Back to the Hills

Those of you who have closely followed my fascinating life will know that I have a husband who is something of a mountain junkie. You know what I mean? A vacation not spent in the midst of rolling (or towering) mountains is a vacation not worth taking. In the early years of our marriage, we always went to the seaside, because I loved it, but as our union ages, so is his enthusiasm for blue water sadly diminished!

So this is the second time this year (2006) that we vacationed in the hills. And I would never admit this to my husband, but I feel the symptoms of mountain junkieness creeping up on me as well, and there are distinct signs of a growing addiction to the heart-stopping sight of the dazzling white Kanchenjunga range etched against a clear blue sky.

Having married a man who believes in off-season vacations, I am destined to travel to the mountains either during the monsoon, or in the biting chill of winter. So it is that on the morning of December 6, 2006, husband, five-year-old son and I get off the Kanchenjunga Express at New Jalpaiguri (NJP) and look about for transport to the West Bengal Forest Development Authority’s (WBFDA) Nature Resort at Lepchajagat, about 20 km from Darjeeling on the Ghoom-Mirik road.

Having found two pockmarked young men who bundle the three of us and our luggage into a TATA Sumo in record time, we set off in a burst of speed and screaming tyres through the barely awake streets of Siliguri. Past the Baikunthapur forest, I feel the now familiar rush of adrenaline as the first hills came into view and the road begins snaking upward.

We take the Darjeeling route till Ghoom, careening madly past road safety signs that implore drivers to ‘be gentle on my curves’. Finally, just as car-sickness threatens to triumph over my tired innards, we screech to a halt at Ghoom to stock up on mineral water. Like most other settlements in these parts, Ghoom has jumped from being a sleepy hamlet to an ever-expanding and crowded township beset by the usual problems like water and power shortage and a lack of basic infrastructure.

Leaving those depressing thoughts behind, we wind our way to Lepchajagat on the crest of a breathtaking valley, through forests of fir and eucalyptus. The chill in the air is distinct and biting as we descend a short bye-lane to the resort — having nearly missed it in our crazy haste, gone on toward Mirik, and then screeched back.

As the engine dies down and we disembark, what strikes us most is the silence — it is quiet to the point of deafening. And then our unaccustomed ears begin to pick out little sounds — birdsong here, a single rustling leaf there, a baby crying in the far distance.

The WBFDA guest house is clean and utilitarian, with somewhat lavishly (and misleadingly) named rooms like Magnolia and Camellia. Misleading because there is nothing remotely flower-like about our cavernous ‘suite’. Wood paneled walls, red jute carpet (a government guest house must have), large bathroom with leaking sink and inadequate ventilation, a fireplace that no one ever seems to have used, a dressing table and a modest cupboard, and a large bed. However, most of it is clean and dust-free, so what more can one ask for?

Well, a properly functioning room heater would be nice, now that you come to mention it. The one that we have been given would be fine in a 6×6 room, but is hopelessly inadequate for the cave that is our suite. So we pile on every scrap of warm clothing we possess and make our way to the terrace for that first, breathtaking glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga.

And that is pretty much all that Lepchajagat offers in terms of entertainment. That, and the incredible peace of total silence. As the name suggests, Lepchajagat is a settlement of Lepchas, the aboriginal inhabitants of present day Sikkim who number a mere 50,000 (approx.) today.

Food at the guest house is strictly of the adequate variety, and the rapidity with which bowls of steaming rice and daal cool down is unbelievable. There is a lounge adjacent to our room that boasts a TV with — hold your breath — a DVD player. The shock of it leaves us speechless, but we are relieved to learn that the contraption doesn’t work and the cable connection is erratic at best, so all is as it should be.

A sound nap later, we would like to take an evening stroll, but the smiling Mr Tamang, caretaker-cum-overseer, assures us it isn’t a very good idea. “Leopard,” he says succinctly, making our son quiver with excitement at the prospect. But we admit that our leopard combat skills are thin on the ground and thus abandon the idea of a stroll.

The next day, we take a trip to Darjeeling in a car arranged, at considerable (but inevitable in the hills) expense by the resourceful Mr Tamang. The Ghoom-Mirik road is not exactly a bustling highway, but it does offer public transport to Darjeeling, if you are prepared to brave the wait and the uncertainty. As we wait for our car to arrive, we stroll along the highway under an eye-wateringly blue sky. The boy who acts as gofer at the guest house sits by the roadside softly strumming his battered guitar and humming very tunefully.

Darjeeling is crowded and bustling as ever. Our trip coincides with preparations for the Darjeeling Festival, and the Mall is a hideous jumble of bamboo stalls and a large stage being set up right in the center complete with gigantic sound boxes for a rock concert. Our son renews his acquaintance with Tashi, a sturdy white pony who had given him a patient ride around the Mall when we were last in Darjeeling.

We lunch at an excellent Chinese restaurant (forget the name), shop for woolens, browse around inside Oxford Bookstore, buy confectionery from Glenary’s, and return to Lepchajagat.

Our next stop: Samsing wildlife reserve, but we never make it. With a day-and-a-half in hand, we will spend all our time traveling backward for about four hours to Samsing and then forward to NJP.

So we do the next best thing and descend upon Kalimpong, which is en route to NJP anyway. A mistake, really, because Kalimpong is the kind of soulless, crowded hill town that exemplifies the worst of tourism in the hills. The WBFDA guest house is a drastic improvement on its Lepchajgat counterpart, but that’s about it.

As we make our way to NJP the next day, I reflect that Lepchajagat will probably not appeal to conventional tourists, but I wouldn’t mind going back for a second helping. So watch this space.

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Yangtey: A Walk in the Clouds


Originally uploaded by yb_27.

When my husband proposed we go to Yangtey for our mid-year break, I was clueless. Not being as passionate about Sikkim (particularly West Sikkim) as he is, the first I heard of the place was when he gushed about how perfect it was in the rains and how isolated. It was also supposed to offer the greatest view of the Himalayas in all of Sikkim. I wasn’t sure I wanted a holiday in the hills in the monsoon, and said so. Dear reader, I was destined to eat my words.


We get off the Darjeeling Mail at New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station at 8.30 a.m. on June 13. The mild drizzle and lowering clouds seem like a warning. Yangtey is about 140 km from NJP, which means a five-hour drive, with stoppage time and all. The area outside the station is teeming with cars for hire, and competition is fierce, but most of the gesticulating drivers around us look ominously uncertain or just plain blank when we mention Yangtey. Finally, a tall, thin, terse Bengali who drives a TATA Indica comes to our rescue and offers to take us to Yangtey for Rs 1700.

Past Siliguri, which is the town that NJP station serves, and past the Baikunthapur forest, we begin climbing in earnest, the road winding through a curtain of green on either side. As the first hills show up on the radar, the sun makes half-hearted attempts to break through the mist. Determined to remain grumpy, I reluctantly note that the scenery is already fabulous. Towering green and blue mountains on all sides, with light and shade chasing each other across their slopes, and tendrils of mist gradually dissolving in the face of a strengthening sun.

Driving through the hamlet of Rambi Bazar, we are reminded of the football World Cup’s pervasive presence as German flags flutter in the breeze among the numerous prayer pennants. We breakfast at Lohapool. Like the innumerable drive-in hamlets that Sikkim specializes in, it looks pretty from a distance and tatty up close. Nervously avoiding thoughts of hill diarrhea, we order omelets and toast.

The road now becomes steeper and more winding, and infinitely more beautiful. Whooping monkeys swing from tree to tree, an old man sits spooling a ball of yarn by the roadside, and chubby, pink-cheeked children pop up every now and then. In the midst of it all, roadside signs advise drivers to ‘drive with care, make accidents rare’, and that ‘fast doesn’t last’.

Nearing Jorethang, we are more than halfway through the journey. I break into snatches of song. Our driver looks pained and turns on the stereo. Jhalak Dikhlaaan Jaann… bellows Himesh the Menace, as I fume silently. The weather, positively warm until now, turns progressively cooler and bougainvilleas run riot. Even our hitherto restive four-year-old son is quiet as the magic takes hold.

Finally, we reach Geyzing, 2 km from Yangtey. As far as I can see, Yangtey is all about the Tashi Gang Resort, where we have booked a cottage, and three or four rickety huts. Approximately 6,000 ft above sea level and part of the Himalayan foothills, this is cloud country. One plump specimen floats past our cottage verandah.

The cottage itself has two large and neat rooms, two squeaky clean bathrooms with running hot and cold water, wall-to-wall carpeting and minimal furniture, built in closets, and a color TV with cable connectivity. A Brazil match is due that evening, I guiltily recall, unable to leave the city behind.

Lunch is no feat of culinary excellence, but utilitarian. Our constantly smiling room boy assures us that the view of the Kanchenjunga range from the verandah is magnificent, but isn’t too sure we’ll see much of it because clouds come in the way at this time of year. Frankly, I am not too fussed, because the non-snow peaks are magnificent in their own right, and we can see plenty of those. Husband and son take a nap and I spend the afternoon alternately watching the clouds and reading. Obviously, there is little by way of recreation, though the resort does have a games room perched on a hillside offering carom and table tennis. By the time Brazil-Croatia rolls around, I am no longer interested, somehow.


We walk down the winding road to Geyzing. The sky is blue and the sun beats down, soon making me regret the woolens I had packed. As we realize, the average daytime temperature for June is about 20ºC, while at night, it falls closer to 15. Words fail me as I try to mentally describe the scenery, and we feast our eyes on the river snaking through the valley bottom way down below, with multi-colored tin-roofed houses dotting the lower slopes of the mountains. The clouds cast giant shadows and the air is painfully fresh.

Geyzing’s sleepy market square – where we buy mineral water a few other essentials –displays stern notices against spitting and littering. It has a surprisingly bustling taxi stand, and we recruit Kiran Pradhan, a 20-something youth with a shy smile and film star looks, to drive us back to Yangtey in his taxi. The ride costs Rs 50 (transport is expensive in the hills as a general rule), and Kiran promises to give us a tour of the attractions around Yangtey the next day for Rs 700.

That afternoon, I am treated to yet another spectacular cloud show. Especially fascinating is the way a solid bank of clouds suddenly shifts, and a huge mountain emerges like a living thing from behind it. I realize my jaw has dropped when the windowpane mists over.

Evening. Clouds have enveloped us in a soundless cocoon, and ghostly white shapes flit by the verandah. The world outside no longer exists.


Our debonair cabbie arrives bright and early, and we set off for Pemyangtse monastery. At the cozy little breakfast place in Geyzing, we meet a tourist from the Czech Republic on his third visit to Sikkim. Dressed in half-sleeved cotton shirt and gray trousers, he carries a rolled-up umbrella and looks like a London banker.

Pemyangtse is nestled against a desolate hillside, rain-soaked and silent. We pay homage to the Buddha and head off to the Rimbi Falls and Rock Garden. The adjective charming comes repeatedly to mind, as we pass village boys at a game of football (this is Baichung Bhutia country too) and gaze dreamily at terraced fields of rice. We would have loved to take in Yuksam and Khechoperi Lake, but don’t have the time.

Lunchtime. We think Pelling – 40 km from Yangte – will do nicely. Mystifyingly, we can’t find a single place to eat, though the place is all hotels. Isn’t 12.30 pm a good enough time for lunch? Thwarted, we decide to postpone it till the time we are back at the resort, where we have shifted out of the cottage to a first-floor room, just for variety.

Evening. With clouds drifting in and out, we stand at the window watching the lights of distant hamlets come on. Soon, the valley seems dotted with giant fireflies. We are leaving at noon the next day, and I don’t want to. I think back to my reluctance to come to the hills in the rains, and wonder what I was on about. Yes, the Himalayas have remained resolutely hidden, but what we have seen has been reward enough. As we prepare to leave, the manager asks us to come back in winter. I can’t wait.

Important information at a glance

Yangtey is well-connected to and 140 km from Siliguri, the nearest railhead The only place to stay is the lovely Tashi Gang Resort (www.tashigangresort.com), which offers modern amenities including a 100-seater conference hall Places to see around Yangtey include Pemyangtse, Yuksam, Khechoperi Lake and Rimbi

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