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Delhiwale: Inside white Mughal William Dalrymple’s library

Scotland-born William Dalrymple, author of the famous City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, lives at Mira Singh Farm on the outskirts of Delhi. His place is a boon for book thieves

delhi Updated: Oct 18, 2017 19:49 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
William Dalrymple,Mayank Austen Soofi,The Delhiwala
Author William Dalrymple first came to India on January 26, 1984. His works on the history of India are globally acclaimed.(Mayank Austen Soofi/HT Photo)

His empire at Mira Singh Farm, on the outskirts of Delhi, teems with Polish chickens and Scottish bantams. He also rules over a large population of goats, including Petunia, given to him by environmentalist Pradip Krishen.

One afternoon, we enter the library of Scotland-born William Dalrymple, author of the famous City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. His place is a boon for book thieves. Even the swimming pool shed has its share of bookshelves, and the toilet is so highbrow that it has The New York Review of Books lying by the bathtub. Many of Mr Dalrymple’s other books — chiefly on Scotland and Middle-East — are at his second home in Chiswick, London.

Among writers, our foreign-born Delhi chronicler is especially fond of the late Bruce Chatwin, who was also a “dear friend”. With great care and love, Mr Dalrymple takes out a handsome hardbound of Chatwin’s In Patagonia from a shelf.

This is a folio edition of the classic travel book. The introduction is by Mr Dalrymple. He silently looks on at the book for a long time before returning it to its place.

When it comes to writing, Mr Dalrymple does all of his in the swimming pool shed “because the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach to this part of the farm”. These days, he is working on a book about the rise of the East India Company.

How has this Scottish man, who set foot in India for the first time on 26 January 1984, become a globally acclaimed historian on India? Why do his writings — and not some India-born scholar’s — on Ajanta caves, Rajput paintings and Deccan Sultans appear on the venerable pages of The New York Review of Books?

How did it fall on him to write The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857? This book was the result of “previously undiscovered sources” that he, and not acclaimed Indian historians, excavated from the National Archives of India in the heart of Delhi.

“I have made a career in India thanks to the fact that, for a long time, very few historians here were writing non-fiction with the prospect of being read by general readers,” says Mr Dalrymple. “Until recently, very little narrative non-fiction by Indian writers was being successfully published around the world, though Indian fiction was. That absence, for such a long time, gave writers like Patrick (French) and I room to breathe.”

But this is changing now, Mr Dalrymple says, citing examples of authors Ramachandra Guha, Srinath Raghavan, Pankaj Mishra and Samarth Subramaniam.

Indeed, Mr Dalrymple is bold enough to declare that if a British author were to land in Delhi in 2026, he would find very few subjects not being written about by Indian non-fiction writers.

On returning to his library, he settles down behind a desk. A side-table is cluttered with books waiting to be blurbed or reviewed by him.

After a while, artist Olivia Fraser briefly steps inside the study to softly exchange a word with her husband. Apparently, the couple have separate plans for the evening but plans to meet for dinner.

Minutes later, Mr Dalrymple emerges out into his garden to be immediately circled by his Polish chickens and his Scottish bantams, and by Aishwarya and Fudge, his two dogs. We are left alone in Mr Dalrymple’s library and we are trying hard not to flick.

First Published: Oct 18, 2017 19:43 IST