Ibn-e-Batuta of modern times

February 16, 2014

Ibn-e-Batuta of modern times

William Dalrymple celebrated the 30th anniversary of his arrival in India on Jan 26, 2014, having spent half his life living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of South Delhi, in the ancient city of Mehrauli. This is where he did most of his writing of books that provide a fascinating peek into the history of the Indian subcontinent. Dalrymple goes on short holidays to London and Scotland every summer but wants to come back to his Delhi home. Other than his wife and three children, part of his family is Gilbert the goat, George the calf, and Albania the beautiful Yellow-crested Cockatoo.

Graciously agreeing to a skype interview, he speaks to me from a book-lined study in his Mehrauli farmhouse. We spoke soon after the Jaipur Literary Festival -- Dalrymple’s baby, in a way.

Known to be one of the West’s most renowned experts on South Asian affairs, he is the author of more than ten works of history and travel, most of them set in the Indian subcontinent. His popular works include City of Djinns, The Last Mughal, White Mughals, Nine Lives and The Age of Kali.

His interests include but are not limited to history and art of India and Pakistan. His compelling travel books based on his journeys in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Central Asia can easily win him the title of Ibn-e-Batuta of the modern times. He laughs at my suggestion and says: "I wish I were Ibn-e-Batuta".

I am eager to know how he first got interested in India. "I arrived in Delhi at the age of 18 in 1984 and never looked back or thought about leaving the country after that (laughs). It was just a backpacking tour to India for a few months with a friend of mine who wanted to discover it. I knew nothing about India initially and was more interested in going to an archeology dig in Iraq." 

"I have always had great times in Pakistan. I find India an easier place to live but I absolutely love Pakistan and the nomad-like society there. I am fascinated by the folk culture and sufi music and have many Pakistani friends." 

Dalrymple had spent his childhood in rural Scotland on the shores of Firth of Forth and was the least travelled of his school friends which he thinks is the reason for the astounding effect India had on him.

"After hanging out in Goa for a few weeks, I found myself being drawn to Delhi and finally got myself a job in Mother Teresa’s Mission -- a charity that looks after the poor."

Every day, just after his work was over, he would take a rickshaw to head out on an exploring quest while passing through the narrow streets and gullies of the Old City of Delhi. He would spend whole afternoons inside the Laal Qila (Red Fort) of the Mughal Empire. "I quickly grew to be fascinated by the Mughals and began reading about them. Gradually the interest developed further -- translating into Indian art, culture, history and music."

Dalrymple is the author of two important books on Mughal history in India. White Mughals published in 2003 won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson Prize. Also a winner of the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, the book tells the true story of a love affair that took place in early nineteenth century Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa Begum.The book is to be made into a major motion picture, directed by Academy Award Winner, Ralph Fiennes.

The Last Mughal, winner of the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for History and India’s leading literary award, the Vodafone award for Non Fiction, reflects Dalrymple’s love affair with Delhi and documents the previously ignored Indian accounts of the War of Independence, 1857.

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, as the title suggests, is about nine individuals having different religious convictions and spiritual quests. The book explores the lives of nine Indians -- a Buddhist monk, a jain nun, a lady from the middle class family in Calcutta, a prison warden from Kerala who becomes a Hindu god in the holy Theyyam season, an illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan, a wandering minstrel from Bengal, an Idol maker from Tamil Nadu, Lal Peri a hindu woman from Bihar who has made the sufi dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in rural sindh her home, and a devdasi whom he had come across during his Indian travels.

According to critics, the book investigates the role of religion in a country that is undergoing a socio-cultural change and explores the challenges faced by practitioners of traditional faith in modern times.

How did he choose the subjects for this book? "It was very random. I met and interviewed some amazing people during my travels in India and Pakistan. There was nothing systematic about how I chose the nine most remarkable subjects for the book. You can write a book tomorrow on the plurality in South Asia. But, to my surprise, the book has done a lot better in India than in UK and went to the number one slot on the Indian non-fiction section best-seller list."

On the release of the book, Dalrymple toured US, UK, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia with a band of these real life characters including sufis, fakirs, bauls and Theveram hymn singers from both India and Pakistan.

Which character inspired him the most? "It was the Jain nun as I found it very touching that after the death of her friend and co-nun she had decided to take the ritual of fast unto death. I am not sure if she is still alive because she had already begun fasting the time I met her."

Dalrymple laughs and says he would not mind becoming one of the bauls (the wandering musicians) himself as they have fantastic lives travelling and making music.

The Age of Kali is a collection of essays collected through almost a decade of travel around the Indian subcontinent. The book’s theme is the times of trouble in the subcontinent and the Hindu belief in an epoch called Kali Yuga when many problems will come to exist in the world. The book, therefore, deals with controversial topics like sati, caste wars, political corruption and terrorism. The series of essays includes interesting interviews with a proprietor of a military supplies shop and drug dealers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as interactions with Tamil Tigers from Sri Lanka.

Does he think the times have worsened or improved in the subcontinent since the book? "The situation has become better in India but worsened in Pakistan. The time the book was written, in the 1990s, India had met with some horrific incidents of communal riots and caste wars. Pakistan, on the other hand, had some sort of economic and political stability. But the opposite is now true now," he says.

One of the essays in the book titled ‘Benazir Bhutto -- Mills and Boon in Karachi’ features Dalrymple’s interview with Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto at their separate homes. He gives a description of their homes and recounts parts of their biographies. Mills and Boon refers to a series of romance novels which Benazir had enjoyed in her youth.

"I had met Benazir Bhutto several times. My first meeting took place in 1994 in Karachi when I interviewed her for my book," he recalls. That was a time, he says, when she was getting bad press in Pakistan but in the west she was regarded as a symbol of democracy and liberalism.

"The west longed for her but unfortunately she failed to represent democracy and liberalism in many ways," says Dalrymple.

I want him to discuss his travel experiences in Pakistan. "I have always had great times in Pakistan. I find India an easier place to live but I absolutely love Pakistan and the nomad-like society there. I am fascinated by the folk culture and sufi music and have many Pakistani friends. I hope Pakistan somehow finds a solution to the creeping problem of terrorism and violence which make it a dangerous place."

Dalrymple thinks that literature in Pakistan is extraordinarily flourishing and there is an amazing revival of world class authors like Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam. Lahore is his favourite city in Pakistan.

He tells about a retired Pakistan Railway employee he had met in Lahore who shared with him his ghastly experiences during the partition of India. Historically nothing can justify the tragic partition of India, he adds. "There are more Muslims in India and are safer there than in Pakistan. I would have had a different view in 1990s but things are very bad in Pakistan at this point in history. So, partition should be regarded as a mistake."

Talking about pluralism in India, Dalrymple says India is more of a continent than a country having a variety of different languages, religions and distinct regional cultures. All the cities depict significant differences. The deserts of Rajasthan, the jungle of Madhya Pradesh and the Tibetan culture of Laddakh (to say the least) form an interesting potpourri of cultural diversity.

"One major difference that I see between India and Pakistan is that of pluralism and secularism. Though India is not a perfect example of secularism, it is inherent in the Indian Constitution that it is a secular country and it has managed to provide a certain level of security to the minorities. The scenario is very disappointing in Pakistan when it comes to the protection of minorities," says Dalrymple.

He doesn’t agree that a decadent society is always replaced by a new system. Many policies introduced by the East India Company were rich and culturally productive but the Company itself was "savage and rapacious".

He explains there are many examples of the policies introduced by the East India Company which led to impoverishment in the region. "India was an extremely rich country when the British arrived in the 16th century but it had become impoverished at the time they left in the 20th century. We can very strongly argue that while they brought democracy, rule of law, good communication and other important things, they shattered the confidence of the country and created huge damages." The issues arising in the region in the 20th century can question the legacy of the British Empire, he says.

Dalrymple, who has literature in his blood being the great nephew of Virginia Woolf, has been hugely influenced by travel writers like Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. "I work in a different genre, which is narrative history and I am kind of a pioneer of this writing tradition. I try to produce works that interest the readers similarly as a novel does."

Recalling the stories he had heard about Virginia Woolf, he says "she used to live with my great grandmother and was very close to her. I feel very proud of my connection with Virginia Woolf."

The author, who is the co-founder of Jaipur Literature Festival and has won plenty of literary awards for seven of his books as well as his documentaries and radio programmes, is currently experimenting with the cultural history and art work of non-fiction once again set in the Indian subcontinent. He has said in all of his previous interviews that if he had five more lives he would like to spend them all in India "because a lot more stories need to be explored and told". His series on Indian Art called Mind, Body and Soul would be aired on the BBC in the coming future.

Ibn-e-Batuta of modern times