|I first met William Dalrymple at the launch event of his book nine lives at the British Council in Delhi. The next day I met him at his residence at Mira Singh Farm near Gadaipur on the fringes of the city. The launch was a typical William Dalrymple affair: music, food, wine, performance. The next day, driving to his farm to interview him, i was wondering if he would give us much time, as he is diffifcult to pin down and keeps a busy schedule. But he surprised me with his relaxed freewheeling chat. His place borders Gurgaon, far from the proverbial madding crowd. It's a large place - beautiful - there are goats, a cockatoo, a dog, and the house is full of artifacts and books. William came across as a warm host, with a casual friendly air about him. His wife Olivia was a pleasure to talk to - genial. I was surprised to note that the Theyyam Dancer from Kerela along with others who had performed at the book launch were staying at his house.
“I remain detached from the interviewees; I am a shadowy presence in the book, I am there only on the margins of the story; because the stories are really so good, if would just spoil them really to have me in.” - William Dalrymple, Autumn of 2009, Delhi
Part 1: The New book – Nine Lives
Q: William, how did this book begin shaping? I mean its central idea…
William Dalrymple: It’s a book that had a very long and slow gestation. It began in 1997 when I did a documentary series for BBC called Indian Journeys, which had a Hindu journey up to Gaumukh; a Muslim journey up to Ajmer Sharif and a Christian journey to the St. Thomas’ Shrine in Mylapore. But I struggled for almost 15 years to try and find a way of writing religion… but didn’t step on all the potential landmines of Orientalism, Exoticism. And it was really when I was sent off to do this AIDS Sutra story on the Devdasis of Belgaum and Saundatti that I found what I thought was probably a solution – which was to present one person telling their story and to step back as far as possible as the narrator and to let them tell their own stories. And 90 per cent of this book is in the reported speech. Its individuals telling their own stories - which I hope has avoided most of the potential charges of misinterpreting the plural world of Indian spirituality.
Q: In some ways, Nine Lives appears to be Dalrymple picking up from where he left off in Age of Kali. What has caused the return of the essayist and contemporary commentator now?
William Dalrymple: Well, I have always had a parallel career as a journalist to my career as writer. And after finishing a book, which I would say is a rather exhausting process and it is… - people imagine writing as a kind of leisurely job for lay bys - I personally find the actual writing of a book hugely exhausting, like doing a final exam or something; you are completely obsessed by something and focused on it for a period of several months. And I find short journalism, magazine pieces as a lovely way of recovering from the struggles of writing. So after every book, I tend to take a year of mixing book tours with journalism. And this is… Nine Lives is slightly different from Age of Kali; and in it (Nine Lives) the stories are longer; in ‘Kali’ there are 5000-6000 words essays. These are more like 20000 words each and they are more closely focused on a single theme. Kali really is a collection of journalism disguised as a book with a pretty tenuous coherence. I was really pleased how people enjoyed it here but it is really just a collection of journalism. This (Nine Lives) is a coherent project to see how India’s many different registrations are changing as India changes with increasing speed and acceleration.
As a writer, and as a historian, do you think you break new grounds in this work?
William Dalrymple: Well this is not me in the historical mode at all, there is no archive research at all in this book; what history is there is in the form of book learning. What this book does is… - it’s a very contemporary book; it looks at nine real individuals living today in modern India or modern South-Asia and attempts to tell their story. And I think the form of this book is ‘non-fiction short story’, which I think is not something that has been attempted before. Immediately before beginning work on this, I read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (he meant In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, surely a slip Freud would have something to say about), which is a fabulous collection of short-stories from Pakistan, each of which focuses on different individuals - and I think the ghost of that book lingers in several of these stories of Nine Lives. But I think the form is new. Many of the subjects are subjects which people have written about before. I mean there is a whole wealth of literature on Naga Sadhus, the tantric …or the Jains… or the Bauls… and so on. Each of these traditions has literature (on these subjects), so it’s not as if these are completely novel subjects. But I think the form is quite new.
Any significance to the number nine? Or it simply happens to be the number of stories you chronicled?
William Dalrymple: Oh it just happens to be the number of stories that made it through a very tough selection process.
Yes, I was about to come to that. Often there is material that a writer culls but chooses not to stick into his narrative. What was it that did not go into this book?
William Dalrymple: Well, all sorts of stories, for different reasons. One of the stories I was most keen to do didn’t make it because the guy wouldn’t give an interview until the very end. This is the story of a middle-class Kashmiri who became a Hizbul Mujahideen Commander in the Valley, who went off to the camps in Kandahar and came back; was disgusted by what he saw the jihadis doing and ended up as a Sufi by the Dal Lake, it’s a perfect narrative argument - it would make a lovely story, and an interesting story because I think Kashmir is something which is under-reported in the Indian media and many horrific and strange things go on in the valley – both horrific by the security forces and the jihadis. But that one, for quite understandable reasons, didn’t want to be interviewed in detail. And eventually when he did agree, it was too late.
There were other stories as well. There was a Syrian Christian story which I was very keen to try and get in, which is in the end too similar to the story of the Theyyam dancer Hari Das, but this didn’t go in. Then there were various Sikh stories that were lined up which never made it finally. There were all sorts of stories which could have gone in. I must have done about twenty interviews as detailed as the one that went in and they just didn’t gel.
But what makes each of these stories work is just how wonderful every individual and the life of each person has been.
One particular story drew our attention. The one about the bard from Rajasthan who continues the Indian oral tradition of story-telling. You’re quite a story-teller and performer too. What struck you most about him?
William Dalrymple: Mohan Bhopa and I became really close friends. I first interviewed him for a New Yorker story in 2003 and we performed together in a whole chain of literary festivals – the Siyahi Festival last November; most recently at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January. And it was at the Jaipur Literary Festival that he complained of stomach trouble and I sent him off to a doctor… and …he found that he had Leukemia. And he has died and he has taken his particular branch of the Pabuji Epic to his grave because he didn’t hand it onto his sons.
I think many of these traditions in this book are potentially fragile but none more so than the oral tradition of Pabuji.
When writing this book, did you have a specific audience or audiences in mind? After all, it does have a touch of the exotic.
William Dalrymple: Well, there are several answers to that. The stories here range from… the pretty ordinary… for instance Srikand Satpathy, the Idol Maker in Swamimalai, is a pillar of his local Lion’s Club, is a local businessman in a small town, who’s a Brahmin… I mean very ‘un-exotic’ in all sorts of ways except for the fact he continues an ancient tradition of idol-making. Then, on one extreme… ranging through to as exotic and wild a figure that you could imagine as the Naga Sadhus of the Tarapith Cremation Ground. But part of the project is to humanize the exotic. I mean, these people exist, and they are not figments of an orientalist imagination. These guys are real. You see in the Kumb Mela how many of them there are. The question is what attracts them. The attempt is to take something which is an ‘exotic freak show from a distance’ and find out who these human beings are. And Tapan Sadhu turns out to be from a middle-class background; he’s got sons – an accountant in Tata in Calcutta; and he is an obsessive cricket fan – he sits there stark naked with his skull saying ‘India is 94 without loss’! So… far from exoticizing, I am humanizing a real institution which is there. And India is not just Bangalore, Sahibabad, Maruti, Middle-class Delhi and NDTV; it is also Tarapith, the kumb mela, the great temples of the South and the Baul tradition of Bengal. These things are not invented by Orientalists as thought by Indian middle-class people who would like India to be only in their own image. you could make a case, I mean Pankaj Mishra told me when I spoke with him that this was an India he grew up in with in small town India which was very familiar to him which he hadn’t actually seen on the printed page. And I think there is a sense… you know people fear to write about the exotic for the fear of being called ‘Orientalists’ or ‘Exoticizers’ but these are legitimate subjects and they are certainly interesting subjects.
Q: But how did you manage dealing with the language barrier? Especially in a country like India, where even a desi could find it difficult.
William Dalrymple: Well, show me any desi who knows all eight languages in which the interviews for this book are done and I would happily employ him for my next one. I mean the languages we needed for this book were Bengali, Tibetan, Malyalam, Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, Tamil and so using interpreters was a necessity; if any project which is so pan-Indian, obviously it would have been for a desi writer too. But what I hope I succeeded in doing was to choose people who were interpreters in the wider sense of the word and not merely translators; but people who could help me see into a culture and who in their different ways contained the key. For example, in Rajasthan, I used Prakash Dan Detha who is the nephew of the greatest poet of Rajasthan Vijay Dan Detha. And Prakash has been a friend for fifteen years; he speaks various Rajasthani dialects but more importantly he knows the folklore of Rajasthan like a few other people and since Komal Kothari’s death, probably Prakash’s family are as well-versed in Rajasthan’s particular mythologies, as anyone. And so travelling through the Rajasthani landscape, we would pass something which to me would look like trees, but Prakash would say this is an Oran – this is sacred grove, it has a particular history, its sacred to Gogaji who is the snake deity of Rajasthan… so one was taught to see signs in a landscape which to an outsider as much to a desi coming from Delhi as a firang coming from Scotland would have been hidden. I think again you could make the argument that if you choose the right interpreters to come with you which you might not have bothered to do otherwise; if they are the right people, they can open up much more than simply laboring ahead across India with bad Hindi speakers….So one thing I was very careful to do was to choose the good ones. Again for the Bauls of Bengal, I went with Mimlu Sen as an interpreter and whose job in the sense was as much to educate me in the ways and traditions of the Bauls as it was to speak Bengali. I think for a project like this you need both kinds of interpreters not just the language but the eyes to see.
Part 2: Personal Probe
Q: You are quite a traveler, aren’t you? So what after Delhi? Or is there going to be a patch beyond your “patch between Istanbul and Calcutta”?
William Dalrymple: I have developed love for South-east Asia; in the last few years, I have been travelling a lot to Cambodia and Burma; I am going next week to Laos. But, no, I think India has got enough for at least another nine lives, another nine incarnations.
Q: Apart from literature and history, what does william dalrymple do? Music, sports…
William Dalrymple: Well, I am lucky that I can integrate my hobbies into my work. For example, my interest in the Bauls came from listening to one of Paban Das’ CDs. The Idol Maker came from an interest in Indian art and going to the Chola Exhibition at the Royal Academy. And all these different interests artistic, aesthetic have led me to these people. I mean one is very luck, if one can make a living from one’s hobby.
Do you believe in god? (I couldn’t resist this …)
William Dalrymple: As you ask it on a personal level, yes, I think I do. Though India’s sheer pluralism has certainly eroded the Orthodox Catholic Christianity that I grew up with. If there is any lesson that India teaches, it is pluralism. That there are many mountains; there are many ways of looking at a mountain; there are many ways up it.
Part 3: The Craft
Q: How did you begin writing and what have been the most significant literary influences on you?
William Dalrymple: Well, this book as it had a fifteen year gestation and many of the stories had earlier incarnations as magazine articles; for example in 2003, I wrote a long magazine piece for Guardian about the Bauls which has appeared here in its much-changed-form. Then, The Daughters of Yellamma came in the AIDS Sutra and then it was serialized in the New Yorker. But this book is a slimmer book than the last two which were monsters – both of them took five years of writing / research. The final push for this book was really one year – even less, eleven months – August 2008 to July 2009. And the writing – the final draft was from January this year to June – only five months… of really intense writing.
I find in middle-age, in my seventh book, I have developed a method very different from writing my earlier books which were really meandering affairs… I took 80 months to write for example From the Holy Mountain as well as the time it took to cull the material. I find now that it’s a really good method to go into a sort of complete monastic isolation for the final push. I stayed here completely during the months of April-May when there is nothing happening in Delhi; social life draws to a close and I would sit in the hut near the pool which is beyond the reach of Wi-Fi which is very important so I could not play with Facebook or look at the BBC News Site or send e-mails to friends. And I used to get up at six in the morning, would swim, would get down to work and try to answer whatever e-mails I had to send and by 7:30 am or so I would be writing and work right through till supper with may be a siesta when it got really hot. And in the evening claps in front of some fabulously English BBC Drama by Jane Austen or something. Frocks and bodice I find a very good antidote to skulls and cremation grounds.
But in general coming to your entire craft and the body of work, what have been the major literary influences on you?
William Dalrymple: Well I have written very different sorts of books at different times. I have written two narrative travel books - going from a to b… and I suppose the influences on that one for me are going to be writers like Robert Byron -Road to Oxiana, Eric Newby - A Short walk in the Hindu Kush. I have written a city book called City of Djinns which is influenced by Geofferey Mohas’ book on Calcutta. I have written journalism which has been very influenced by the sort of long reportage you find in Granta and various various Granta Collections…. of James Fenton… reporting from Phillipines. And I have written narrative history books like The White Mughals, The Last Mughal, which were influenced by the work of various narrative historians like Anthony Beaver…
This book (Nine Lives) if it had any influence, a late influence just at the end was Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. I loved it. It’s a fabulous book.
Q: How do you place your work in relation with that of the other great India writer (India writer not Indian writer) Sir Vidya Naipaul?
William Dalrymple: Well, I think VS Naipaul’s most acclaimed work are his novels like A House for Mr. Biswas, and I don’t write fiction. And I don’t like Naipaul’s politics; I dislike very much his sort of Hindutva triumphism.
But I hugely admire his work and I think I have learnt from him in this book – his unrelenting drilling away at the characters he interviews, like he does in Million Mutinies Now. The way that he takes his characters - and obviously he spends days with them, plucking away at them… and I think the ghost of Naipaul lingers a bit in this book.
Q: Why do you think your work is so hugely successful in India – besides the great writing of course?
William Dalrymple: I am very proud that my books do well in India. And I think if one of my books were to be a great success in Britain but were to be slammed here I would assume that I got something badly wrong. Well, the books are kind of successful everywhere, so India is not an exception like that. But I think, may be some of the answers could be that I see certainly very few other people are doing in India this sort of narrative history that I have been doing. Well, it’s a very common form in Britain and America where you find many books about the Indian Moors, or English Civil War which are books which are scholarly and involve archive research but which are written to be read and are not written in academic jargon or in sort of basically in sort of postcolonial studies language which is almost kind of a dialect to itself. I kind of got the field to myself so people are finding in The Last Mughal or The White Mughals a sort of book that other people are not yet writing.
But I think that has begun. There is more non-fiction coming out of India now and I think it’s almost impossible to imagine a gora writing successful novels set in India... Life of Pi is probably an exception – vaguely set in India…involves Indian animals at least…(laughs, he laughs frequently)
But it has been possible in the past up till now to survive as non-fiction because so few desis were writing non-fiction. That’s beginning to change and we have seen some fabulous memoirs like Basharat Peer’s The Curfewed Night, there is some amazing Indian travel writing like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. So the competition is getting tougher. But so far I am in a relatively unpeopled field.
Q: You had said in one of your interviews that “I think fiction has now been reclaimed by the desis”. Could you elaborate? And will there be a work of ‘fiction’ from you?
William Dalrymple: What I have enjoyed doing as a writer throughout my books is to use the form of a novel or a short – story just as in this (‘Nine Lives’) book; or use a fictional novel or short-story form and to find a way of making non-fiction and factual writing fit that frame. so you get the same narrative pleasure. The idea is that you should get the same narrative pleasure that you might get out of the Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories in the Nine Lives stories. One is a fiction, one is from an interview. So I find that a very absorbing task.
I enjoy fiction and I read fiction but I try and use its craft in a different way. My only attempts at pure fiction are so unsuccessful I never publish them; unless I have a blinding insight. And I find that creatively it satisfies me and there seems to be a market for it as people also enjoy it. So make hay while the sun shines!
Q: Salman Rushdie has dealt with Islam, Naipaul invariably returns to it. But you have managed to engage with the religion without creating any visible furore. Are you being too careful?
William Dalrymple: I don’t think that avoiding getting a fatwa is necessarily a sign that you have done something wrong! Ah…I arrived in India in the late eighties at a time when Muslims were facing the rise of Hindutva; Advani was on his rath yatra and I first saw Islam very much on the receiving end of violence. I saw muslims as a oppressed minority. I was reporter when the whole Kashmir thing blew up and I covered atrocities done against Muslims by Indian Security Forces. And I have never ever seen Islam as the overwhelmingly hostile force that many Western writers perceived it to be post 9/11, writers such as Christian Hitchins or Martin Amis are obsessed with Islam as a negative, violent force of disruption in the world. Having seen Muslims on the receiving end of violence I have always had a more sympathetic view though like anyone else I am terrified by what Al-Qaeda could do. And I have felt the same revulsion at the attack in Mumbai as anyone else in this country. My brother-in-law, who was living over the hedge here, was booked to be at the Taj that night and one of his children stopped him from taking the flight or else he would probably be dead. And Al-Qaeda violence has followed me around the globe and I have stayed in five hotels that have been destroyed by Al-Qaeda!...the taba Hilton, the pearl continental in Peshawar, the marriot at Islamabad, the taj in Bombay and the oberoi in bombay! And I seem to have a bad record with hotels…So yes I am as terrified as anyone else by what Al-Qaeda has done and by the unrelenting hostility of the jihadis. On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time in Palestine, and I know the issues that make Muslims angry and have seen terrible things being done to them in Kashmir. So, probably I am more sympathetic to Islam than many Western writers are at the moment.
Just as a suffix, this is really my first Hindu book – this is overwhelmingly a book about Hinduism; there are Jains and Buddhists and Sufis in there, but even the Sufi is pretty Hindu. Hinduism is a religion I find very hard to comprehend; I have always been interested in it. I have enjoyed Hindu art – I love the Chola Bronzes, Pahari miniatures and I have collection of 18th century Karnatakan Shiva-heads… I have long been interested in Hinduism and I am into Hindu aesthetic but I found it a much more difficult religion to come to terms with and this is my first attempt really to grapple head-on with Hindu issues.
Your stage appears to be the margins: the margins of history, the margins of contemporary stories, the margins of genres – is it out of design?
William Dalrymple: I don’t think anyone could call Delhi a place on the margins which is my most successful book yet. Delhi is after all the Capital City. I wouldn’t agree to that; I think 1857 is a central moment in Indian History; it’s not a marginal moment. I would say that Delhi is the capital city and religion is the central part of life anywhere in the world but not least in India. And to me I think religion provides a gateway into the human mind, the human condition. Many writers use love or sex as a way of getting into the heart of human beings, to me it seems that religion is every bit as useful a motorway to the human heart as anything else…to see how people react devotionally to their spiritual yearnings, these things are the at the heart of human condition and these are really legitimate subjects of enquiry and central I would say, not marginal. (I should have rephrased that one!)
Q: Writers are known to have a method of writing, a kind of ritual – some write in long hand, some use the typewriter and some the computer. What are your rituals of writing?
William Dalrymple: Well, my first most important ritual is to start early in the morning when I find that my particular mind has greater clarity and all my clearest thinking and best ideas come to me before breakfast actually. If I can really get up early and get down to work and get the emails done before breakfast and if you can really think what you have to do and come up with a plan before breakfast, it’s by far the most successful way of behaving.
I write on a laptop. The other ritual is I take a print of what I have written everyday and do one edit before I go to sleep and then do another edit when I get up first thing in the morning. So if I have written three pages the day before, I will take it to bed with me, I will have a last go at it in bed, with a pencil on a print out. And if I am being disciplined the first thing I do when I wake up – when my wonderful Stella in the kitchen brings me my morning cup of coffee and as I grab it – then sometimes in bed, sometimes out on the terrace if its winter, I sit and go over it again so you have this clarity when you first wake up. I jump-start quite quickly and some days I get half the day’s work done if I get up early in the morning as by then the phone calls start, people drop by, bills being paid, whatever it is you know ….
What advice would you give to writers starting out?
William Dalrymple: To read is the first bit of advice. I think reading and knowing what you love is the first thing, much more important than going on literature courses or creative writing weeks or programs. To really fall in love with a particular type of writing or a particular novelist and to learn to appreciate its qualities is the best way of honing your mind to doing it yourself.
A parting shot…
Q: Any plans on writing for the movies? Some of your books do have stories that lend themselves to cinema. There were talks about ‘The White Mughals’ being adapted for a film…
William Dalrymple: ‘The White Mughals’ is still, I hope going to be adapted and is in the process of adaptation. I was commissioned to write a script by Ismail Merchant who died, which was called ‘Liela Chatterjee’s Lover’ which was a re-working of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ with a desi immigrant family with the gardener… anyway it never happened. But it may, you never know.
I think I know what I am good at; which is non-fiction books and I think once you know… what you good at... you should keep ploughing the right furrow rather than veering off in strange directions.