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Dhaka Tribune

William Dalrymple: A South Asian love affair

Update : 22 Nov 2014, 08:50 PM

The highly accomplished and widely read historian William Dalrymple proved excellent company during our interview this week, while he was in town for Hay Festival Dhaka.

We chatted about his foreword for the 25th anniversary edition of his first book In Xanadu, which chronicles his journeys along the Silk Road as an undergraduate student.

Despite being mildly disapproving about his “bumptious 21-year-old self,” it was clear that his exciting travels in the mid-80s set him off on the road to his career as a renowned writer on South Asia and the Middle East. It led him to settle near Delhi, where he has lived since his twenties.

“In a sense, that first journey opened up everything. It changed my life. I had been interested in Anglo-Saxon sculpture and medieval churches ... but then came to India and never looked back. It totally hijacked the rest of my life and I will, I hope, die out here.”

He noted the difference between himself as a post-colonial British citizen and the White Mughals of his books.

“They married here, in some cases they converted to Islam and cut themselves off from their British identity. I haven’t done that. I’m still very much a Brit. I go back every May for two months. It’s not either-or. Millions of Bangladeshis do it. Its a very modern thing ... but I’m unusual in being west to east.”

On Thursday, he had a session at the  festival named after his book The Last Mughal, in which he performed readings in accompaniment with the singing of Vidya Shah. Greatly interested in music, he told me about a past trip down the Brahmaputra, saying: “Bauls and fakirs is a world I want to know more about.”

Asked to pick a favourite Bangla word, he opted for saying: “Like all men who have admired the beautiful women of Bengal, it would have to be the phrase: ‘Ami tomake bhalobashi.’” I should say this took him several minutes of scrambling through his phone, during which time he looked up various Bangali delicacies, and after which he reflected: “It’s a measure of how long since I’ve said it that I had to look it up.”

Though he struggled to recall the phrase, his love for the region remains. He said his next book will be about the early history of the East India Company, so he expects to see and write much more about Bengal and Dhaka in future.

When did you become interested in history?

Whether you’re into trainspotting or fascinated by bumblebees, it comes out of you. I was always interested in history.

I remember pleading and pleading when I was six, [to take] my first journey down from Scotland to go see the Tutankhamen exhibition in London. I wanted to be an author and an archaeologist. I’m very lucky. I’m not far off from my six-year-old ambition. All you can ask for in life is to do what interests you most as a human being. And to be able to do that is a wonderful thing.

Do you enjoy your work?

Every day I wake up grateful to have a job I like. I remember my dad, who was a businessman, saying he was just counting the years till he could retire. He hated his job. Not interested. I knew at the time I never wanted to do a job I hated and be waiting for my sixtieth birthday ... As an author or journalist, it’s not the world’s highest paid job, but I’ve been able to bring up my kids, make a living out of it.”

Are your children also interested in history?

We had this family half-term holiday in Bamiyan recently. Taking them to see Afghanistan was the most successful piece of educational travel we’ve ever done. (Previously) we had dragged them around country houses and castles and places without igniting any clear spark. I’m happy to say one of the kids is now learning Dari, and another one is writing an essay on the Soviet-Mujahedeen war.

Now we have ignition ...That’s when you really learn: When learning for yourself. Not exams.

What is your writing schedule?

Writing is a bit like being an athlete – and writing a big fat book is like doing a marathon. You have got to be mentally very fit.

I write a major book once every four years. It’s like a university course, so near the end, there’s an accelerating sense of a progressive loss of freedom. You start off as a fresher, pissing around, spending the whole year in the bar, going on book tours like this and sitting around pretending it’s work.

Year two: I begin to visit archives and arranging translations. Year three is spent in archives mainly, and the fourth year is card indexes and mapping information so you can retrieve it.

My writing year takes nine months or more. Total lockdown. Completely different from other years, I barely go out at lunchtime. Never touch a drop before dinner. 

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