Friday, October 08, 2004

The White Indian

I have always admired William Dalrymple and had interviewed him on email from Bangalore but when I heard that he was going to be in Jaipur, I told myself that I had to speak to him. Here is a report that appeared in the paper based on our coversation:

William Dalrymple seems a little pensive when asked if it would be fair to call him a “white” Indian. “By blood only 1/8th but by adoption… yes,” he soon replies, without second thoughts. The Scottish writer does have a bit of India in his veins. His great-great grandmother Sophia Pattle was a Calcutta-born Hindu Bengali who later converted to Catholicism and married a French officer. Quite like the cross-culture plot in “White Mughals”.

However, that faint Indian connection was destined to blow up into a romance for the award-winning author, rather a “hate and love” relationship. “It is definitely more of love than hate,” he reassures. Probably that is why three of his five books are based on the Indian subcontinent and the Dalrymples are as comfortable in the grubby streets of Delhi as they are in the propriety of London.

Not surprisingly, Dalrymple’s next book is also based here and talks about the last days of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mughal Delhi. “It is a sad story but they are the best ones,” he says. His deep interest, however, continues to be how Islam fused and mingled with the local traditions in India. “My gambit,” he told a gathering on Saturday, “is anything between Constantinople and Calcutta.”

The writer has been working on the book for a year now but it is not expected to be on the shelf before three years from now. Research for historical documents in India continues to be a daunting task. “By some strange quirk of fate the Delhi Residency records ended up in Patiala,” Dalrymple says. According to him, they were dumped into a cold cellar and a lot of them were lost forever. “It is difficult but you must know your way around,” he adds. Translators are working on the available Urdu and Persian documents at the National Archives in New Delhi.

Worried about the “galloping corruption and criminalisation of politics” in India, Rajasthan has featured in his writings, but for grim reasons. “The Age of Kali”, a collection of essays, dealt with the Devrala Sati case and the rape of Bhanwari Devi.

Asked if readers could expect another freewheeling and “frothing student’s yarn” like “In Xanadu” from him, Dalrymple declines politely. “For better or for worse, you lose a little of your youthful ebullience with age but also gain depths of wisdom,” he says. Thankfully for many he still dons his scholarship lightly.


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