William Dalrymple shares his impressions of modern India

From the Herald Saturday magazine, June 14.

A travel writer who, after 25 years of immersion in Asia has graduated to a historian, William Dalrymple is fired up about his next project. “It’s about the First Afghan War: 2,100 East India Company troops march into Afghanistan in 1839, one single Brit rides out three years later,” he says, with obvious relish. Dalrymple has recently returned to India from a month in Afghanistan where he is excited to have found five previously untranslated Dari chronicles about the war. This, he feels, will enable him to “give the Afghan perspective” on that forgotten imperial adventure.

At some point the Scottish author, who has been captivated by Asia since the student backpacking trip he chronicled in his first book, In Xanadu, in 1989, plans to turn his attention to the history of his own notorious clan, which is infamous for ordering the Massacre of Glencoe. But for now he is too busy. He will have to put his Afghan research to one side too over the summer, as he will be travelling in the UK, Europe and the US to promote the paperback edition this month of his current bestseller, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, which has been shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

For 45-year-old Dalrymple, this book is the culmination of a journey that he has made, not by travelling but by staying in India for so many years. It’s a long way from his aristocratic roots in East Lothian. Dressed in a flowing kurti, eating weetabix under a sunshade on the verandah of his Delhi home, he demonstrates in his own life a supreme ability to reconcile the cultural collisions that make up this complex continent. Over time, he describes the gradual shift that has taken place in his perspective.

“When I started out, it was very clear that in my head I was writing for a western reader and almost entirely a British reader. In Xanadu was translated immediately into about 20 languages but it wasn’t a huge hit anywhere except Britain. Here in India the first book which came out in a separate Indian edition was City of Djinns. It was a bestseller here but it got quite sniffy reviews – a Westerner coming here and writing about us.”

City of Djinns, a biography of Delhi, is still very popular and the urchins who stride out into the traffic selling piles of paperbacks do good business with it. But Nine Lives has far overtaken it and it is expected to enjoy another wave of popularity in paperback.

“Maybe it is because I am living here and I am writing for my neighbours and friends,” Dalrymple muses, breaking off the interview to sign a copy for an Indian friend who has dropped by before giving it as a gift.

One of the short stories in the book features a middle-class Indian family who bring a goat to the graveyard on the darkest night of the year for a Tantric animal sacrifice. They want their children to do well at school and after all, it can’t hurt. Rather than laughing at them, as he might once have done, the Asian-ised Dalrymple manages to make this family and other strange characters he encounters seem perfectly normal, “as eager and relaxed and as at ease as their British equivalents would be on Guy Fawkes night”.

He explains, “A huge amount of writing about India has been by white westerners who want to find in India an answer to their own spiritual longing and frustration, or, for an earlier generation, who wanted to impose western prejudice and bigotry. If you read some of the stuff some of the Scottish missionaries were writing about Hinduism, it is full of vile prejudice and bigotry which reveals their own racism.

“So against that background I made a very deliberate decision, consciously, to keep myself out of the picture. I also made the decision that these stories that people were telling me were so extraordinary in themselves and so complete, they really needed no elaboration. The story of the young man who scrapes a living for his sisters but can’t raise enough to get them married off, and comes home to find his 15-year-old sister has hanged herself because she knows the effort to raise a dowry for her is destroying the family from within – you are straight into the world of Thomas Hardy and Jude the Obscure, transported from rural Wessex to rural Bengal.”

Another story concerns a Jain nun who is committing suicide through starvation. “When you live here at first, it’s easy to be full of certainty and to judge it according to the moral system that you were brought up with. What was very clear when I was writing this book was that it was utterly pointless taking a moral position on any of these people because each religion has its own moral system. The Jain nun – a beautiful young woman from a privileged background, starving herself to death by degrees … Do you say it is a sin, suicide is a sin and a wicked waste of a life? Or do you take the position that this is an extraordinary act of heroism and self sacrifice, full of moral courage and hope and understand her decision to starve herself to death in this manner in order to achieve enlightenment? The longer I live in India, the less clear I am about how one can understand these questions.”

Although there is little editorialising in most of the stories, one entitled The Red Fairy, about a female Sufi Muslim fakir, takes on the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam which is opposed to music, dancing and women attending shrines. It was Wahabbi terrorists who blew up a shrine where, as a young journalist, Dalrymple spent “some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in south Asia … under the palms, listening to the sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis”.

For Dalrymple, Wahabbis are an Islamic form of puritans like the ones who took over Scotland at the time of the Reformation. “We had puritanism in Scotland. When my father was young, he said that Christmas was hardly celebrated.” Admitting that the tone in this story is less detached than some of the others, he says: “When somewhere you have loved and known gets destroyed, it is hard not to take a stance.”

On a recent promotional tour of Pakistan with some of the individuals featured in the book, Dalrymple admitted to security worries which meant he had to announce dates and venues at the last possible moment. “There are some people who, if they knew a British author was taking a bunch of Hindu dancers to Lahore, they would be happy to bomb it for nothing.”

Dalrymple clearly loves his life in one of Delhi’s salubrious suburbs, enjoying the purple bougainvillea and the neatly tended marigolds in the garden of the beautiful home he shares with his wife, the artist Olivia Fraser (whose delicate line drawings illustrate many of his books), his three children (though one is now at boarding school in the UK) and numerous pets including goats, dogs and a cockatiel, Albinia. The newest, just a few days old, are goats names after Greek legends Antigone and Oedipus in reference to their incestuous origins. Dalrymple, who will be appearing at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, has also started a literary festival in Jaipur in Rajasthan each January, to which he invites many UK writers such as Alexander McCall Smith, Hanif Kureishi and Mark Tully, who appeared earlier this year. But with one child away from home during the school year already and another getting towards that stage, he feels the family balance may shift and bring them all back at some stage to live in one of their other homes in North Berwick or London. For the moment, he finds it hard to drag himself away from Asia. For a historian, it is fertile ground. “If you can utilise this archive of material that is lying in repositories, you are like a child in a sweetie shop or Winnie the Pooh in his honey pot. It is difficult stuff to use if it is in a dusty library, but if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a manageable archive you can rewrite history each time.”