Surprise surprise. William Dalrymple’s new book has no Delhi in it. “Yes, it’s a conscious attempt to go different,” says the author of the award-winning Delhi travelogue City of Djinns.
Launched yesterday at the British Council, Dalrymple’s new offering, Nine Lives, follows the religious pursuits of nine people, including a Jain monk, a tantric skull feeder, and a devdasi. “The whole point was to humanise and demystify such entities,” he says, adding, “The mundane mingles with the exotic.”
Why is Dalrymple’s India always exotic? “Because India is exotic,” he retorts. “In the West, you see the homeless outside the malls, here you see them at the cremation grounds.” Still, Dalrymple dismisses the exoticism charges as unfair. “Mine is not the imagination of a doped orientalist,” he says.
Putting together Nine Lives took eight translators to help Dalrymple. But quite a few are uncomfortable with his popularity as a recognised authority on India. Author Sunil Khilnani mockingly credited him for creating the genre ‘Bollywood history’. Ramchandra Guha said that Dalrymple’s “knowledge of this country is so superficial.”
Dalrymple responds saying, “Westerners generally write on India to suit their own prejudices. In Nine Lives, I’ve tried avoiding that by letting the people speak.” Adding that his book is on ‘real India’ that lives in villages and small towns, he says, “Author Pankaj Mishra told me that this is the country he grew up in, but never saw in print before. The self-obsessed Indian middle class, happy driving Marutis and visiting clubs in Gurgaon, wants to read only about itself.”
Ironically, the same middle class will decide whether his book ends up being a best seller or best forgotten.