“Dalrymple used to be a fine travel writer with a sense of history and has now become a fine historian with a sense of place.”
This telling one-liner from the Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen pretty much sums up William Dalrymple’s luminous literary career from City of Djinns, one of his exuberantly erudite travel books, to White Mughals’ groundbreaking narrative history, his true calling found during a two-decade-long tryst with India. ‘Revisionist’ would be the best one-word description for a historian whose latest book The Last Mughal, universally being acknowledged as the most complex, enlightening, and evocative account of one of the most disputed events in Indian history, the 1857 Mutiny, has recast the terms of engagement between contemporary India and her past.The man from the wind-blown Firth of Forth, who freed our history from jargon and argy-bargy, and to revised it without distorting it, speaks to Hemant Sareen on how and why he does it.
Olive, New Delhi, December, 2006
HEMANT SAREEN: It seems The Last Mughal was the result of a chance discovery?
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: [While] writing White Mughals, I was pottering around the Hyderabad Residency records when I found this small printed volume from 1971 which was the complete catalogue of the rebel government in Delhi. This catalogue is 500-pages long and it contains one-line descriptions of around 20,000 documents from the six sepoy camps around Delhi, from the Red Fort Chancery, from the Kotwal, from the Thana. All of Delhi is there. Its the most spectacular account. Just four months, of one city, at the time of complete crisis, just before the whole city is wiped clean. And its the kind of archive every historian dreams of discovering. What’s weird about this one is that normally with these types of archives, you tend to discover them either in some haveli in Old Delhi, or in an old people’s attic, or some place like Bankipur, or Patna, or somewhere. What you don’t expect to find is a complete, unused records of Delhi sitting [chuckles gleefully] beautifully catalogued, unused, just 500 yards from Rashtrapati Bhawan.
HS: How come a treasure trove of archival material on such an important and contentious event in Indian history, sitting bang in the centre of the capital city, went unnoticed by generations of Indian historians?
WD: In a sense, that’s the question you should ask the Indian historians rather than me. But I think there are three or four different answers to that. First, is that its a simple matter of language skills. Indian education [system] is such that you have an English medium stream, [where they] speak very good Hindi and English, but [not] Urdu. And then you have the Urdu stream from the provinces where, by and large, they have shaky English. So you have two parallel historiographers. You have some very fine Urdu scholars of he 19th century India [who have] never been translated into English. One of them, Aslam Pervez, has written a very fantastic biography of Zafar in Urdu, But most English-speaking Indians don’t know of its existence,
And the second reason is [a] fashion in historiography [that] has led Indians to be particularly obsessed with theory as opposed to empirical research. In some places, empirical research is almost a term of abuse. Anyone, who actually gets into an archive and looks up a document, is found suspect... [Laughs heartily] ...and old fashioned.
And thirdly, I think, in some quarters there is little unease about the whole notion about what happened in Delhi in 1857. And what happened was that a whole lot of upper-caste Hindu sepoys, because sepoys were generally recruited from Rajput and Brahmin castes, went to Delhi and voluntarily asked the Mughal ruler to rule them, and put the Mughals back on the throne. Now, for someone like [Veer] Savarkar [the Hindu nationalist ideologue, coined the term Hindutva], this is not a welcome sight. So he emphasised Mangal Pandey and Rani Jhansi. Two heroic figures, great stories, but frankly side shows to the main action of 1857 revolt, which in numeric terms, say of the one hundred thirty nine thousand people who revolted, one hundred thousand went to Delhi. That’s an empirical fact that can’t be quibbled. Therefore, to my mind, Delhi was the centre of the revolt. But there’s not one Ph.D. that’s ever been done of Delhi in 1857, and there’s never been a book written on it since the 1950s.
HS: Like White Mughals, The Last Mughal is very readable. Some suspect narrative history might not skip on the rigors of serious history writing.
WD: My favourite history book is this wonderful book called The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Sir Steven Runciman. which mixes in a way, that amazingly few history books do these days, the joy of a good story, impeccable research, and scholarly clarity. So you have a history book that’s as enjoyable to read as any Pulitzer or Booker-prize-winning work of fiction. I firmly believe that there should be, and need be, no contradiction with something being impeccably scholarly, ferociously researched, and cutting-edge, but also to have a narrative running through it.
There seems to be no reason why in the human mind there need be any thought that can’t be expressed in perfectly clear English. I am not saying that all historians should write like the way I am describing. What I am saying is, [narrative history] is every bit as legitimate a form of real history, as a subaltern studies essay is.
It’s only in India that people assume that history, if it’s any good, is completely unreadable, and is probably written in post-modernist, post-structuralist, post-Saidian, post-Foucault, post-subaltern-studies code, that it is of no interest to anyone except your rivals at Aligarh Muslim University.
HS: They are writing for each other?
WD: Exactly! All over the world, I think in the 1960s, 1970s, there was a move from the telescope to the microscope in history. Scholars were producing ever more minute areas which they could defend against their colleagues’ assault with greater confidence. But since the 1980s I think there’s been move away from that in the West, where now we have writers such as Simon Schama, Paul Kennedy, Orlando Figes, all leading professors of history at Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Yale effectively. In the history departments of [these universities], its no longer considered to be the death of a serious, academic career to write an interesting book.
And that’s hasn’t happened here yet. A book that you want to read, but frankly don’t want to read, is something like subaltern studies. I know history is a city with many mansions. But it just seems to me that all Indian historians are at the moment sitting in the same mansion, doing the same thing, and just talking to each other [chuckles].
HS: Do you think its a dearth of archival material...
WD: Its certainly not dearth of material, the Indian archives are full of them.
HS: ...Or, is it just their inability to get in touch with a larger audience?
WD: No one in academia in India seems to be tackling the wider frame. The one possible exception is Ram Chandra Guha. There are others too [who do it] to a certain extent, like Sunil Khilnani, Narayani Gupta, and Sanjay Subramaniam.
Nonetheless, if you compare the presence of Indian writers in the bookshops around the world in the fiction shelves, with the presence of Indian writers in any form of non-fiction, its very striking. You can’t move in a book shop in Washington, or London, and not bump into Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. But one looks in vain for equivalent richness of Indian writers in non-fiction, and not only in history. The only new talent in Indian non-fiction, who has made a real international impact in the last ten years, is Suketu Mehta. Period. You’ll never find, great historian though they are, Irfan Habib or Sanjay Subramaniam in Watersons or Borders [leading bookstores in the US and the UK].
HS: Indian history is a very prickly [William Dalrymple: Touchy!] thing, riddled with controversies. The well-known Indian historian Irfan Habib is sceptical about your sources, especially about the translation of the Persian archival material. You responded by sending him a copy of your book. Was his a typical response to your takes on Indian history?
WD: Every review that we have received has been good, from any one who has read The Last Mughal. The prickly response has come from people who reacted to newspaper articles. There hasn’t been a single negative review that I have seen so far coming from anyone who’s read the book.
Irfan Habib clearly hadn’t read or seen the book when he wrote his piece in the Outlook because he quotes me as saying all sorts of things I actually ever said. Specifically, there was an issue where I had said in the book that seventy-five per cent of the papers which we got out of the National Archive, had never been looked at before. Which was a simple statement of fact, because in the National Museum Archive you have a list of everyone who has ever called up the file. It was translated by the headline writer in the Times of India as , ‘Dalrymple Attacks Lazy Historians.’ And ‘lazy’ was put in inverted commas to add insult to injury. I never said ‘lazy.’ Equally, there was another article in national weekly carries a full retraction and apology, accepting that I never said [that Indian historians are] ‘dull’, ‘drab’, or ‘don’t do any research:’ none of these words ever left my mouth.
One of the things that have happened is that a lot of newspaper people have been using me as a club to beat the leftist historians with. So, I seem to be caught in the battlefield between two warring forces.
Lodhi Gardens, New Delhi, December 2006
HS: If White Mughals offered a model to a world divided along religious lines, The Last Mughal reads like a history book with a lesson? A cautionary tale, about the perils of imperialism addressed as much to the Delhiwalllahs, the saffron brigade, as it is to the Neocons and the Bush administration.
WD: I give in to every thing you just said [Laughs]. I started to write the book in 2001. When I originally thought of doing the subject, there were no parallels at all in my mind [between the American neo-imperialism and British imperialism]. As the research went on for [The Last Mughal] , there was nothing in modern history that suggested 1857 was happening again. But what we see today is an aggressive evangelical America pushing a rigourous programme of control and expansion and an imperial ideology that has taken shape in front of us. We have seen the growth of imperial ideas in modern America very similar to evangelical Christians’ as existed in Victorian England and creating the same sort of backlash from the jihadi substratum, it wasn’t the central ideology then: the central ideology of 1857 was the Sepoy Uprising against the British. So, it isn’t a direct parallel. I wouldn’t like to over-stress the degree to which the two, the 1857 and today [the present] reflect each other. But the fact of the matter is that there are many parallels which do stand.
HS: The jihadi element of the Revolt of 1857 that you write in the book has attracted media attention. How big were the jihadis in Delhi?
WD: The jihadis are like the substratum, if you like, in the story. But an interesting one, one that’s been ignored. I don’t want to overemphasise their importance. Jihad was just one element among many here. What happened in the course of 1857 was that freelance civilians, usually untrained villagers with no particular skill in military matters, took up weapons and decided to fight for their faiths. By the end of the Uprising, when, because no one fed or looked after them, most of the sepoys had gone home. Out of the hundred thousand in July 1857, the number of rebel sepoys turns out to be 25,000 at the fall of the city, according to the British estimates. Meanwhile, the number of jihadis [in Delhi] had grown to 25,000. [Jihadis] became an important factor right at the end. The reason they haven’t made an impression up to now is that the British sources had simply described them as fanatics, which has no resonance for us. But as soon as you change that into Urdu, to ‘mujhahideen’ or ‘jihadi,’ one wakes up and says,’Huh?’
HS: But, 1857 being the cause for the genesis of the Taliban seems a bit far-fetched.
WD: Oh, you mean in terms of direct historical causation and not simply parallels? The Taliban movement which represented an abstemious, reformist brand of Islam, stripped of Hindu and Christian influences, emerged out a very specific circumstances after 1857--- the same [family which] founded the Deoband, tried to form an Islamic state in the course of 1857 in the Doab. [The family] is still regarded as heroes. And no one can dispute that the Taliban did emerge from Deobandi madrasas in the 1990s. So, it isn’t really far-fetched, this historical line of continuity. Actions have results. Actions and reactions have taken place in history.
HS: There are some strong parallels which are difficult to miss: the British soldiers occupying the Red Fort (WD: [gleefully] And looting it!) and the Jama Masjid, and the US soldiers in Saddam’s palaces, lolling about in the palatial halls and diving into his swimming pool...
WD: ...And this show trial that one sees, of [Saddam Hussein] put up for public trial [The interview was taken before the consequent hanging of the dictator], with the result clearly decided well in advance.
HS: You do realise all your drawing our attention to them adds to your already anti-West image?
WD: I don’t regard myself as anti-West. White Mughals is a book that in a sense could be accused of whitewashing colonial history. But unless you recognise the desperate SS-type, Nazi atrocities the British inflicted on Delhi after the Uprising of 1857, you can’t go on and say, ‘Oh, we built the railway, we introduced parliamentary democracy, we introduced the English language.’ All of which is true, and could be argued. But the Empire has a very mixed balance sheet. It certainly has some achievements, and I’ll be the first one to celebrate them. But you can’t legitimately celebrate the achievements of colonialism, unless you recognise the costs.
HS: In the course of researching and writing The Last Mughal, were you surprised at how little Delhiwallahs or Indians in general remember the holocaust of 1857, or the ‘cost’ of colonialism they had paid?
WD: I’m well aware since I came here, at the extraordinary lack of interest many people have in the history of this city. I became aware of [that] writing the City of Djinns, rather than The Last Mughal. Again there is a specific reason in Delhi why there is a neglect of the past and ambivalent attitude to history, to Mughal history. Because of the history of Partition, most people who are born in Delhi, do not have roots going back to more than one generation in Delhi. Even Khushwant Singh who’s lived here almost all his life and written endlessly about it, hesitates to call himself a Delhiwallah.
HS: But how few signs remain of the British presence in the walled city, or of the thriving mixed culture in and around Delhi.
WD: I’m struck by that in general about India. The British were here for three hundred years. India is a very emphatically India.
I think India has this very rich culture which is not easily upturned. And what happened for most of the British rule was that the British acclimatised themselves to Indian culture, rather than the other way round. The history of Indians acclimatising themselves to the British culture is far briefer a story, that really runs , in this part of the world, from 1857 to 1947--- only ninety years--and has a slightly longer prehistory in Bengal, where you find people from the 1800s, or the 1790s even, beginning to become the ancestors of the brown sahibs. But, in a sense, what’s interesting is that, the higher Raj only lasted for just ninety years, which is a blink [snaps his fingers] in the eye of Indian history. And it was a very brief period when they tried to change India, and one of the results of that was 1857.
HS: Isn’t it surprising that elsewhere in India we had figures like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his reform movement (much before happened 1857). Yet despite the intensity and range of interaction between the British and the Muslims, British progressiveness does seems to have rubbed off on the Muslims of Delhi. Even Ghalib complains about it when he returned from a Calcutta-visit, how the Delhi Muslims had kept themselves shut off from the advances in science?
WD: I think, that’s a bit of an over-generalisation. Because there was Sayyid Ahmed Khan, and the whole Aligarh Movement represented an embrace of the West. But certainly you get an ambivalent response from the Muslims after 1857. And in 1857 in Delhi, there is the sense that the culture of Delhi is so rich that Western culture isn’t such a siren call. People are coming to Delhi because the culture of Delhi is so rich. Its only after 1857, after the humiliation of Mughal culture and the spectacular declaration of British power that 1857 provides, that the British become something to ape. And there is a lovely quote by [poet, critic Muhammed Hussein] Azad, saying that after the British victory, even their manner of dress and their way of speaking have become attractive. People were so swept away by it. And this was something they were quite new to. Previously, people had laughed at the stupid way the British dressed and the way they couldn’t even speak Hindi or Urdu properly. So, part of the answer lies there. But its a difficult question to answer.
HS: The Sachchar Commission’s report on the condition of Muslims in India came out recently. Was 1857 the start of the Muslims’ relative moribundity?
WD: In Delhi you had very self-confident Muslim culture, which is a composite and not purely Islamic culture. And you have the Hindus anxiously embracing the culture. They all go and have their Bismillahs and learn Persian. After 1857 this whole world looses its entire prestige. So Urdu poetry is dropped; the etiquette comes to be regarded as archaic; everything associated with this culture overnight loses its shine and gleam. Suddenly, instead English education and Western ways become the new goals. And out of this world, the same year Ghalib dies, Mahatma Gandhi is born. [Despite] giving his approach to the Indian freedom struggle an Indian or a Hindu gloss, [Mahatma Gandhi] is, nonetheless, using the world of political parties, of protest marches, and a western political dialogue as his mode of resistance, as opposed to the feudal, military approach of [the Uprising] of 1857. Nehru and Gandhi are very much the children of 1857 and the British victory.
HS: Considering the impact it had, aren’t you a bit hasty in quelling the debate on the nature of the 1857 Mutiny or the Uprising in the book? The book seems to dampen the spirits of historians and nationalists on the eve of the Uprising’s 150th anniversary celebrations?
WD: Oh no, I am open to that debate. I wouldn’t quell it at all. It seems to me that many different things were happening in many different places. I certainly accept that at its heart, it started off as a sepoy mutiny. Was it a first war of independence? It certainly wasn’t the first; it certainly wasn’t national, since it was limited to Hindustan [once the term for Northern India’s Hindi-speaking states, the Cow Belt]. Was it a war for independence? That’s a more difficult question to answer.
In many ways it was. Though its not expressed in the form of secular freedom struggle in the way that often many 1950s’ and the 1960s’ Indian nationalists have reflected back on to it, their own ideas, and have reached for documents, such as the Azamgarh proclamation which talks, indeed gives reasons for the Uprising in a very secular, nationalist terms. But it is a unique document which is not reflected by the vast masses of material which rebels used, which talk far more in terms of the rising against the kafirs and the nasranis, the infidels and the Christians, in Delhi, and uses a far more religious language.
I think, all historians see history through the prism of their time and their own belief. I, researching in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, have been far more struck by the echoes of the jihad. [The jihadi element] went completely unnoticed by, or remained unremarkable to, the historians of the 1950s and the 1960s, suddenly seems far more important to me writing now than it would have done if I had written this book ten years ago.
And that’s in the nature of writing history. Each generation rewrites history for its own times. And that seems to me perfectly healthy and is also a process which the historian can’t escape from. All historians try to be as objective and reflect the truth as they see it. But the truth as they see it, is very much rooted in their own times.
HS: Do you realise you have become an Indian historian?
WD: [Chuckles guardedly] As much as I love this country, and have lived here all of twenty years and devoted my life’s work and emotion to it, I am not an Indian. And I can never be an Indian [silence]. There’s a wonderful quote* by T. E. Lawrence written after the first world war, and he’s saying how, ‘I can never be and will never be an Arab,’ and ‘yet I have quitted my English self and can never quite recover it.’ I think, in many different ways, this is a common experience whether its Amitav Ghosh going off to live in New York or Vikram Seth going to live in Salisbury[who] will never entirely be the Amitav Ghosh and the Vikram Seth born and brought up in India. My experience, in a sense, is the reverse of most postcolonial writers who leave their homeland and go to the the West and then spend their whole life writing about their homeland from the point of view of London or New York. I am a Westerner who’s gone East, slightly contrary to the spirits of the time. I don’t know if I am fifty years too late or ahead of my times, but in a sense, its the same issues that I face in my writing as Kiran Desai is writing about in her books. And she will never be entirely Indian, because she’s half New Yorker.
HS: The Indian writers write what Pankaj Mishra calls ‘slickly exilic version of India, suffused with nostalgia, interwoven with myth,’ but t you don’t write about Scotland you write about the country you seem to have adopted.
WD: I am a historian of India. That probably is the right description [smiles sheepishly].
HS: On your first trip to India, you went around riding on a rickshaw in Old Delhi. Was that the start of your engagement with the country and the books that have followed?
WD: Yes, its certainly the start of the City of Djinns. I remember going around and thinking, ‘I want to write a book on Delhi.’ I [would go] to Khan Market, trying to find a good book on Delhi. There was nothing. I had previously spend lots of time in Rome,and Venice and used these great books like Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta, Jan Morris’ Venice, or James Lees-Milne’s Roman Mornings. And there seems to be nothing like them, no really classic work on Delhi. I thought there was an opening here. That certainly was the period when I really fell in love with the city.
HS: Do you think the way of looking at cultures dourly or humorously from the outside, like many of VS Naipual’s books do, has become outdated?
WD: I think its a very useful position as a writer to be in whether its fiction or non-fiction: the insider-outsider, to be a part of, to be deep enough in a culture so that you understand some of its workings, but also that you are in a state of surprise, and wanting to learn more. As I was talking about Kiran Desai earlier, she’s in a similar position in her fiction, I think, as Naipaul is in his travel writing, or I perhaps was in City of Djinns. Its a very useful place to be, an insider-outsider, if you are a writer.
Its a separate issue whether travel writing has slightly gone out of fashion, and I think, yes, unequivocally. If you look at what was happening in the early 1980s with Granta travel writing and Bruce Chatwin, there was a feeling, between about 1977 and 1990, that this was a really exciting, cutting-edge, new form of non-fiction, and in many ways people were making claims that this was the new novel. And certainly in terms of prizes and literary prestige, travel book was at the centre, in a way it certainly isn’t now. Travel books are still there. The most successful travel writers are not the serious travel writers like Chatwin or [Paul] Theroux, but more the comic writers like Bill Bryson and Tony Hanks. So, that, in a sense, is where travel writing is surviving best. And its also true that many of the people of my generation, who wrote history in the 1980s and the 1990s, many of us are writing biography and history. Sarah Wheeler is one example who wrote the wonderful book called Antarctica (1997), who subsequently wrote a couple of biographies. Equally, with my generation, what the matter is, that we just got middle-aged. So we now got kids in school. So we can’t bug off to central asia or Antarctica for a year now.
HS: Do you think globalisation or even 9/11 has something to do with the desire to engage deeply rather than superficially with other cultures?
WD: No. I think the response to 9/11 is marked by overwhelmingly superficial urge to articulate anti-Muslim feeling. So you have this very crude book by Bernard Lewis having huge audiences and being given a weight they didn’t deserve in post-9/11 America.
No, some very successful travel books have come out since 9/11, like Jason Elliot’s book on Afghanistan, An Unexpected Light (2001) and another very good book on Iran; then you have Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. These are books that have been number one bestsellers in the New York Times’ list which wouldn’t have had a hope in hell some twenty years ago. So, certainly, there is some serious travel writing coming out after 9/11.
I don’t think that globalisation in any sense a threat to the travel book. The travel writer has a very important role of stripping off the veneer that globalisation gives of sameness. And we can still be as different as we ever were.
I was very struck by it when I was writing the Roop Kanwar story, who committed sati. She [was] a kid, had satellite television, [had] been to college in Jaipur, she wasn’t from the boondocks. She married into a small village. There is a good reason to believe that however it was done, she, to some extent, agreed to become a sati. It certainly wasn’t the kind of brute murder where she was clubbed on the head and shoved on the fire. And that to me is a wonderful example of how despite [everywhere people] watching Baywatch and Santa Barbara, wearing Nike and going to McDonalds, there are huge differences in this world. And that is a very interesting territory for the travel writer. So, no, I don’t think the travel writer has less of a job to do. And I don’t think 9/11 spelt the death of the travel book. I think its simply a matter of literary fashion. I think [travel writing] was very popular twenty years ago, and things move on, new things become popular.
HS: Does New York-based Kiran Desai’s winning the Man-Booker vindicate what you have been saying for some time now, that India writers based in India making it big in the international literary scene, the way Arundhati Roy did, is a pipe dream? You still think all Indian mega-advance-worthy writing will only come from the keyboards of diasporic Indian writers?
WD: Again, I think what we are dealing with is literary fashion, the same literary fashion that provided many travel writers, myself among them, with huge advances in the late 1980s to go out and do these journeys, and provided many writers here, in the wake of Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, with absurdly large advances, on often sort of few pages of manuscript. And fashions move on. You had many publishers and literary agents sent here in the aftermath of Arundhati Rao’s Booker-win. What seems to be happening now is that most of the money seems to be given not to writers like Raj Kamal Jha living here, or as he was then living here. Its going increasingly to the in-betweenies, the Kiran Desais in New York, the Suketu Mehtas in New York, the Vikram Chandras living between California and somewhere else. It does seem that the global Indian diaspora, the Hari Kunzrus, the Monica Alis and so on, who seem to be at the centre of the literary fashion, in the eye of the literary hurricane at the moment. Which is not in any sense to say that they are or are not the greatest writers of the moment. It is merely to say that this is where the fashion seems to be at the moment.
HS: Does the fault lie with the Indian writers or the western audience?
WD: My impression is that there don’t seem to be that many A-list writers thriving here. That’s not to say there aren’t millions of talented writers living here and writing here. But the ones who seem to be getting the attention and the advances, those who have been given the big launches, and whom the big literary publicity machines are backing, seem at the moment to be [those with] more globalised experience of the International diaspora, particularly the Indian diaspora, than the experience of [those from] small-town-India or living in Delhi. Publishing is driven very very strongly by fashion. I think Indian writing in English in India had its moment in 1997 with Roy and all that. But a couple of big Indian masterpieces can change that overnight. But, at the moment, it doesn’t seem to be the guys who are living in and writing here who seem to be at the centre of literary attention.
HS: Is our publishing culture to blame?
WD: It’s always said that the generals fight their last war: they pick up the tactics from their last war and try and anticipate what happens on the basis of what they had just done. The same is true with publishers. They are always looking for things that reflect what was on the number one on the bestseller list at the moment. So if it’s a globalised diaspora book like Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss, [that’s] number-one, then you can bet your bottom dollar that somebody will produce something that can be called the ‘New Kiran Desai,’ who’ll be the next one to get the money. That’s just the way the business of publishing operates. I don’t think one can all it a good thing or a bad thing. There are always going to be publishers who are going to spot masterpieces on the slush pile an there will be things like Harry Potter which come out of nowhere and succeed by virtue of their quality and charm. But a great deal of publishing operates on trying to find things like the last thing that was successful.
HS: Are aware of the debate or controversy about the difficulty of getting the Indian reality authentically on to the paper. Would you like to venture an explanation?
WD: I am not sure I buy that great literature will break through. It can come from anywhere. Great writers will emerge on their own out of nowhere. I think that sounds more like making excuses. [Laughs heartily].
HS: You have spend years in India. What kind of notes on going native would you pass to westerners wanting to do India?
WD: In a sense I have never gone native. Why White Mughals interested me was that all these guys did what I’d never do: I haven’t converted to Islam; I haven’t gotten myself an Anglo-Indian family; and I still keep my British passport. Like so many people in the world today, I exist on two different continents, I have two different houses, and I got two different address books. In that sense, I have far more in common with someone like Pankaj Mishra and Kiran Desai, who have lived their lives on two different continents, than I have with people I grew up with. So, no, I don’t think I have gone native, I think I have done what many people on the globe do today which is that you find yourself strung out between two different worlds, with part of your life and part of your emotional baggage, in one half of the globe and the other part in the other half.
*The original of the misquote by William Dalrymple:
In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only... I had dropped one form and not taken on the other...
Chapter II, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.