Birthday: March 20
Place of birth: Scotland, UK
Sun sign: Pisces-Aries cusp
Hometown: Edinburgh, Scotland
School/College: Trinity college, Cambridge
High point of your life:
I would really love to relive my year off between school and university when I first arrived in India aged 18. It changed everything. I’ve never really left.
Low point of your life:
Don’t want to remember it, but when my wife Olivia had burst her appendix and we almost lost her. Another was at the birth of my third child, Adam: after a week, he had to be rushed back to the hospital with severe flu and respiratory difficulties and nearly went down. Those were two occasions I would never want to relive.
Currently I am:
Other than the Jaipur litfest, I am working on Anarchy, a book on the East India Company, and photography shows in Goa and Bangalore
You shifted to Delhi for your second book. What made you stay on?
It’s my favourite city, and I don’t mourn how it has changed. I remember the ‘80s in Delhi, when there were fewer cars and you could drive down Lutyens’ Delhi at night without seeing another vehicle. However, I also like what the city can now offer from dining experiences to cinemas and concerts.
Is there a certain time of the day you write? Do you write long hand, on a typewriter or a laptop?
I am a morning writer. If I have to write a book, I get up early and go for a run, refresh my mind and start off. I usually go to the writer’s shed at the end of my garden where there is no wi-fi to distract me. I can think in peace with no distraction. I write on a laptop.
What do you relate to more, your Scottish roots or your ties with India, your karmabhoomi?
I am Scottish but I’ve chosen to live all my adult life in India. Unlike the White Mughals who abandoned Britain in the 18th century, I’ve kept a foot in both camps. I am married to a Scottish girl. India is the centre of my life both socially and intellectually, but I am not and never can be Indian.
White Mughals is now the subject of a documentary. What was so tempting about turning James Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa’s story into a film?
It tells the long-forgotten wider story about 18th century Brits falling in love with India. I’ve always wanted to make a documentary about it and the chance came from the BBC.
Which role do you enjoy more, of a historian, literary festival organiser or travel writer?
I am lucky in that I have the freedom of doing all three careers - and be a photographer too. I find writing hard work, but it is the most satisfying thing in the world when you’ve finished a book.
You are one of the founders of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. What is the biggest surprise that the 2016 edition have in store for bibliophiles?
We have some fabulous authors both in fiction and non-fiction: Margaret Atwood, Thomas Piketty, Stephen Fry, Niall Ferguson, David Grossman, Colm Toibin, Aleksander Hemon, Colin Thubron, Simon Winchester, Atul Gawande: the list goes on.
One unexpected session that I’m really looking forward to is on the ancient Babylonian origins of the flood story in the Bible by Irving Finkle of the British Museum. And another is the battle between man and the Neanderthals by the Cambridge professor of Archaeology Cyprian Broodbank.
Would you, in your view, return a literary award to protest intolerance?
I have never been given an award by the Indian government. In fact I’ve never been given even a samosa, so I have nothing to return. My view on this is that three writers have been killed and this is a very serious turn of events. Therefore all writers must stand in solidarity. But I don’t regard it as a unique problem connected solely to this one government as the greatest acts of censorship have taken place under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency while the banning of Satanic Verses took place under Rajiv Gandhi.
The Jaipur litfest is often compared to a Mahakumbh. Have you attended any of the Kumbh melas?
I did a documentary on the Kumbh at Haridwar. I think the Kumbh is the only thing that makes Jaipur seem calm and empty. It is the greatest gathering of humanity you can imagine. Just seeing those Naga sadhus streaming in is thrilling.
What is the best part about having homes in the UK and India?
They are climatic opposites. This time of year I look forward to the pleasures of a Delhi winter, and come May I will be looking forward to the cool Scottish hills away from the summer heat here.
For one of your books, you toured with Sufis, fakirs and Bauls, performing poetry. Can you play any musical instrument?
I am a wildly untalented pianist, trumpet player and horn player.
Which is your favourite bookshop in India and why?
Ram Advani’s bookshop in Hazratgunj, Lucknow. He knows his literature brilliantly and has fantastic books that are not available anywhere.
What is your view on the physical books versus e-readers debate?
For quick information, when I am away from my library, I sometimes download and look up on the Kindle. But for long reads, I prefer paper.
Your favourites in Bollywood?
I love the ones from the Mughal-e-Azam period. Having said that, who can resist the charms of Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Aditi Rao Hydari? Indian women are the most beautiful in the world - no question.
What is the strangest request your admirers have made of you on social media?
This is probably best left unanswered, but a surprising number of them want to meet me.
When you want to get away from the megapolis that is Delhi, where do like to holiday?
Christmas in Goa and occasionally Kerala. In the hills I love the Chamba Valley particularly and love trekking up to the wooden temples in the lower Himalayas.
Five books by Indian authors I like:
* The Interior Landscape: AK Ramanujan’s translation of ancient Tamil poetry
* Clay Sanskrit Library version of Mahabharat
* God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
* Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
* Difficult choice between BN Goswamy’s The Spirit of Indian Painting, and Vidya Dehejia’s The Body Adorned, on the sensuality of Indian art
From HT Brunch, January 3, 2016
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