Author William Dalrymple: I would love to see regular mehfils in Zafar Mahal
Author of City of Djinns and The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple talks about the culture and history of Delhi and his own connect with it.books Updated: Mar 30, 2018 18:37 IST
Even with his hands wet from a quick visit to the water coolers, author-historian-curator William Dalrymple has a warm handshake. Despite a hectic schedule, he enthusiastically agrees to an interview. We make our way to the lawns of the India International Centre (IIC), which was hosting a two-day celebration of the bard of Delhi, Ghalib. Dalrymple had descended at IIC, for Sheher-e-Aarzoo, a talk on the Delhi phenomenon, as part of the annual event, Words in the Garden.
Dressed in a cornflower blue kurta, a regal white Patiala salwar, and off-white chappals, he puts his coffee-tinted glasses on. But the true-blue Delhiite that he is, he will opt for chai. “I’d love a chai,” he says. We compliment him on the kurta, and he guffaws in acknowledgment.
William Dalrymple guffaws every time he sees the lighter side of things, which is often. Be it his marvel at the coquettishness of Ghalib’s poetry, or dismissing claims that the city is on its way to a cultural decline, his amusement at it all makes for quite a sight.
A resident of Delhi for most of the year, what are his favourite places to hang out and eat at? “It has to be the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a circuit around the Jama Masjid and Dariba Kalan,” he says. The man can appreciate food and rattles off an impressive list of spots, including a couple of top-end diners that fulfil his penchant for Japanese and Mughlai cuisine, a dhaba in Nizamuddin that sells delicious dahi butter chicken, and a hole in the wall that sells delicious haleem during Ramzan.
Dalrymple’s obsession for brass heads, that he treasures in his Mehrauli farmhouse, stowed away on the dusty outskirts of the city, is well-known. Where does he get them? “My heads come from Sundar Nagar Market. There is a little shack there, a fantastic place. They have amazing stuff,” he says.
Dalrymple’s Instagram profile describes him as a goatherd, kabootarbaaz, and badfaroosh. “Yes, I am a kabootarbaaz,” he announces, in a nod to the world he created in City of Djinns. “Badfaroosh means seller of the winds,” he says, chortling away again. We are still curious about the part that says goatherd — does it go back to his childhood in the scenic Scottish countryside? “So, I had a beloved aunt, who used to have pigeons, white doves... She had Jacob sheep, rather than goats, but they’re first cousins. She had a llama and a macaw parrot, too... Yes, I am very rooted in my childhood,” says Dalrymple, who is known to share an intimate connection with farm life and birds, even in Delhi.
The 52-year-old once said that City of Djinns, which was a comprehensive travel book on the Capital, read more like history to him. Does he plan to come up with a modern, digital-age travel guide to the city, as it lives, breathes, drives, eats, shops, and reads? “No, I have no plans to write another travelogue on Delhi. I am writing a book that is pretty Delhi-centric at the moment. It is my book on the rise of the [East India] Company. It’s got Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and Lord Wellesley, set against the figure of Shah Alam. So, the whole Shah Alam half is pretty Delhi-centric. It’s called The Anarchy.”
Dalrymple, with his hugely popular body of work centering on Delhi, has been an influence for many contemporary writers and journalists documenting the city and its history. What does he have to say about the flâneur movement of sorts that has figures like Rana Safvi at its core? “It’s unequivocally a good thing. It’s extraordinary. In a sense, it’s also a very odd thing for this wonderful city, full of ancient monuments (that it is happening only now). Only Rome, Cairo, and Istanbul, I think, compare to the sheer volume of ancient remains lying around. The Japanese listing of the 1950s recalls hundreds more, which would now be under Defence Colony and Greater Kailash.”
However, there is still a long way to go. “We still have terrible conservation in the city, though, for instance, the Zafar Mahal, where a whole new block of flats has come up. The jaalis have been smashed and stolen and people are still playing very rough forms of cricket. The only way that we will stop the destruction of monuments is people protesting, and visiting, and wanting to perform culturally. At the moment, you can run off with a jaali, but the guard won’t allow you to sing a ghazal there. These have to be the centres of cultural life they have always been. I would love to see regular mehfils in Zafar Mahal, and to have the whole block of flats knocked down tomorrow,” Dalrymple signs off, laughing his infectious laugh.