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The history sheeter

Dalrymples's 22-yr-old love affair with Delhi has resoluted in a controversial new book on 1857. Indrajit Hazra sheds some light on the ensuing debate.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2006 16:51 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra

So you’re trying to push me into a stereotype, eh?” says William Dalrymple as he gets comfortable in his rather grand-looking cane chair just outside his study in Mehrauli.

Only a few moments ago, the man seemed to be as pleased as punch when I mentioned that he should sit “like a Badshah on that Peacock Throne” as the photographer clicks away. The writer clearly liked the idea of imagining himself as a Mughal emperor perched on a Cottage Industries version of the Takht-e-Tavous, holding his very own private audience in a latter-day Diwan-i-Khas.

But then, seeing him cross his legs and look rather – for the lack of any other word – imperial, I couldn’t resist telling him, “Willie, you look exactly like Lord Curzon!” For a second, al-Dalrymple could have impaled me with an extra-sharp Sufi aphorism. So I resorted to the defensive: “Well, come to think of it, you look more like a Hindu zamindar.” Civilisational equilibrium was swiftly restored.

Talking about stereotypes and clichès, I had expected the author of City of Djinns, At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess (published outside India as The Age of Kali) and White Mughals to be wrapped up in a shawl (so what if it was a September Delhi afternoon?), chugging on a post-lunch hookah and listening to Sufi music that he had probably recorded while sitting through three consecutive nights at the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah. Instead, he opened the door wearing a beatific smile that covered his well-receded hairline, a kurta and a pair of Bermuda shorts and led me inside to his study where chilled-out, ambient strains greeted me. “Have you heard Zero 7? They’re quite good.” Inside the large study lined with books and with his work-station and sheaves of paper at the centre, he could have been a contributor to the Rolling Stone, putting off his deadline to have a chit-chat with an inquisitive intruder.


The sprawling house where we meet is far away from central Delhi. A wrong turn and you could be in a field with a farmer on his tractor. (We did take a wrong turn and found ourselves in a field with a farmer on his tractor.) But farther away than Lutyens’ Delhi is from Mehrauli is Chiswick in West London. (“Chisik,” I cheerfully repeat, “So that’s how you pronounce it!”) That’s where Dalrymple et famille live for three months of the year when the weather “gets ghastly here.” The rest of the time, it’s ‘here’ in the outskirts of Delhi. But both Delhi and London are light years away from where young William grew up – the Firth of Forth region of Scotland. Was he ever interested in India as a youngster?


Not even after watching Peter Sellers as Hrundi V Bakshi in The Party?


So however did Just William turn into William-saab?

“It was pure accident. Unlike my contemporaries in school, I had hardly travelled – apart from a package trip to Paris with my mother when I was 11. By the time I grew up and was in Cambridge, archaeology excited me. I had wanted to go to Syria to make digs at Nineveh. That somehow didn’t happen. Then when I was 18, I made plans to go to Swazi land where my brother was posted. Somehow, that too didn’t happen. Instead on January 26, 1984, I landed in Delhi. I travelled around the country and,” he says, as if meaning to say ‘but’, “I fell in love with this city.” Thus, at the Battle of Serendipity, 1984, the young Dalrymple was mowed down by the mysterious forces of Delhi.

More than 20 years later, he’s getting ready for another battle – one that he hopes will determine his credentials as a historian beyond doubt. His prized weapon is his latest book, The Last Mughal. “Although Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal, is a central figure in this book,” he writes in the introduction of the pencil-marked uncorrected proof copy, “it is not a biography of Zafar so much as a portrait of the Delhi he personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857. It is a story I have dedicated the last four years to researching and writing.”

Even after the 2004 publication of White Mughals, a highly acclaimed book of narrative history, Dalrymple’s reputation, at least in India, has been that of a perceptive, eloquent and witty travel writer. His first book, In Xanadu (1989), dealt with his retracing the Silk Route and his travels across the vast width of Asia. His second book – his first ‘India book’ – City Of Djinns (1993), dealt with his travels in Delhi. But all his books, including his master ful work on eastern Christianity, From The Holy Mountain (1997), have been firmly rooted in history and deal with the way the past seeps through to a present that deals with the past. Over the last few years, however, he has shifted his focus from travel-writing to writing ‘straight-up’ history.

“It’s a conscious decision. This is partly because travelling excites me less than it used to. With a family now, I also can’t pack my bags and set off on an adventure the way I was able to a decade ago.” Dalrymple recounts a “terrifying moment” he had in the West Bank not too long ago. While returning at night, an Israeli sentry shouting in Hebrew nearly opened fire on him. It was only after a Palestinian told the guard that he was a “gora” that he scrambled to safety. He clearly wants to avoid that sort of thing these days.


But apart from our space-time traveller slowing things down a notch on the ‘space’ front, there’s another important reason why he’s devoting himself more and more to ‘time travel.’

“I got a first in history in Cambridge,” he says, hoping that the neighbours are listening in on our conversation. “Not every historian has to agree with my thesis in this book, but they will have to deal with it as a book of history, which has its own set of parameters and rules.” He places himself in the circle of contemporary British historians such as Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad and Berlin, who are changing the coordinates of ‘doing history’ today.

Taking a large sip on my Diet Coke for Dutch courage, I ask him timidly whether it bothers him that there are people who still don’t take him seriously as a historian.

“Well, Anuj Bahri (of the Delhi bookshop, Bahri & Sons, at Khan Market) explained to me that White Mughals was selling more because he places it in the fiction rack rather than with other books of non-fiction.” He gets more serious when he tells me how it did bother him when people described White Mughals in their reviws as a ‘novel.’ I dare not tell him that on reading the blurb – “White Mughals is the romantic and ultimately tragic tale of a passionate love affair....” “Possessing all the sweep and resonance of a great nineteenth-century novel....” “a remarkable tale of harem politics....” – not to mention the subtitle, Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, I too had been a bit surprised to find an index at the back of the book.

With The Last Mughal, not only does Dalrymple hope to impress the general reader with his famous narrative style, but he also plans to silence his critics in India who might not like the idea of a ‘gora’ giving them a lesson in their own history.

The buzz around the book has been there for months before its publication. I ask him what startling revelations about the 1857 Mutiny we will we get to read about – especially since we already know that Aamir Khan in a Company uniform and a handlebar moustache does not a Rising make.


“There have been nationalist, imperialist, Orientalist depictions of the 1857 uprising. But to really understand what happened, especially in those three months of May, June and July of 1857 in sepoy-occupied Delhi needed a street-level depiction.” I don’t really curl up with different books on the Mutiny every night. But even I know that ‘native’ sources and descriptions of ‘1857’ hardly ever find mention in history books, except through oral histories. Even the Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi, published in 1898, was ‘translated’ by Charles Metcalfe, the son of the British Resident in Delhi during the Mutiny, and is thus likely to be as unbiased as Pervez Musharraf ’s son Bilal will be about Kargil. Nationalist depictions of the Mutiny simply overturn the imperial bias, while Marxist histories see the 1857 uprising only in terms of the backlash against harsh economic policies.

So for the ‘refreshing,’ ‘street-level’ descriptions of 1857 that, according to Dalrymple, “allow us to resurrect the ordinary individuals whose fate it was to be accidentally caught up in one of the great upheavels of history”, what is it that the wily Willie has to offer us that no other historian has?


Dalrymple suddenly disappears into his study. Either he is put off by my incredibly rigorous questioning, or he is bringing me something precious to show. Thankfully, it is the latter.

“This is it!” he says, sounding like Harry Potter did when he showed Ron Weasley the Philosopher’s Stone. “It doesn’t look like much, but this is the index of over 20,000 documents that was catalogued in 1921 in Calcutta.” I hold the slim, yellowed booklet that reads on its frayed cover, Press List of Mutiny Papers, 1857, London Library St James Square. It looks like any other slim, yellowed booklet in your nearest university library that no one has touched for decades. But this one is filled with hundreds of numbered entries that lead to all kinds of documents – court proceedings, newspaper reports, espionage reports.

“I came across this index at the India Office of the British Library in London while researching for White Mughals. And all the records in the catalogue were here.” “Where?” I ask.

“Here, at the National Archives of India in Delhi. Delhi in 1857 – in freeze-dried history! Going through the Mutiny Papers at the National Archives was like entering a Pharoah’s tomb,” he exclaims.

But surely there were historians who had used the Mutiny Papers before him? With a beaming-cum-bemused smile, Dalrymple shakes his head. Nope, the records were written in near-illegible Urdu and Persian, as tiny scrawls or in ‘shikastah’, a personalised broken script in which the natural pauses between the letters and words are blurred. In other words, the records in the Mutiny Papers were as much to hide facts and information as they were to reveal them. Just to drive home the point that he had come across virgin bounty, Dalrymple adds excitedly, “Not a single PhD has been based on the Mutiny Papers. Not one!”

He goes on to tell me that his friend, samosa-eating partner and research associate Mahmoud Farooqui deserves full credit for painstakingly deciphering the documents. “Mahmoud has an incredible talent for language. Without this collaboration there would have been no The Last Mughal.”

So what did the Mutiny Papers unlock for Dalrymple? I toy with the idea of injecting him with a small dose of alprazolam, just to make the hyper-excited man speak a bit slower. But then, I figure that taking notes faster would be the easier option.

“The first thing that I noticed was that ‘1857’ meant different things for different people. It meant something in Lucknow, something else in Meerut, something else in Delhi. What I found was that the vast number of people in Delhi did not take kindly to the sudden appearance of thousands of sepoys from places like Patna, Tonk and Gwalior landing up and creating trouble. These mutineering sepoys were all outsiders to them. I mean, what sort of reception would the people of Delhi give to 20,000 Biharis today if they suddenly landed up trying to upset their normal lives?”


Dalrymple sets out to demolish the notion of a strictly ‘Indians versus English’ battle in Delhi during those chaotic months of 1857.

“It’s more complex than nationalist histories or British chronicles of the Rising would have us believe. There was an inter-Indian divide, as well as a genuine ground-level opposition to the Mutiny. In Delhi, people saw ‘our boys’ being attacked by ‘invading’ sepoys. It’s all there in the desi records.”

But at the core of The Last Mughal lies Dalrymple’s thesis that is even more unsettling as it bears a striking relevance to today’s world: the jehad element in the 1857 uprising(s). And it goes well be yond the issue of a mutiny arising from ‘greased cartridges.’ “

There were jehadis,” he says, “who demanded the ‘restoration’ of the faith with Bahadur Shah Zafar as their chosen protector of Islam. Their motive was quite different from simply driving out the English – they wanted to drive out Christians from the land. This was also a reaction to the moves being made by the East India Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws and against insensitive policies that included shutting down madrasas.” According to the Mutiny Papers, British men who had converted to Islam – and there were quite a number of them in Delhi – were spared. Indians who had converted to Christianity were massacred by the mutineers. “The Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as ‘angrez’ or as ‘goras’ or ‘firangis’ but almost always as ‘kafirs’ and ‘nasrani’ (Christians),” says Dalrymple.

The great majority of the sepoys were Hindus. But in Delhi, a flag of jehad was raised at the Jama Masjid by self-described ‘mujahideen’, ‘ghazis’ and ‘jehadis’.

“By the end of the siege, when most of the sepoys had been killed or had vanished, about half of those remaining hungry and dispirited mutineers camping in Delhi were full-fledged jehadis,” Dalrymple explains. “This included a regiment of ‘suicide ghazis’ from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death – ‘for those who have come to die have no need for food’.”


Just as I am about to be sucked into the bowels of 1857 forever, there is a hubub away from where we are sitting. Has Dalrymple unlocked ghosts from Delhi’s violent past? Was the Diet Coke that my host had gracefully served early on in the afternoon laced with opium that he had procured from a band of Mehrauli thugees? No, it is wife Olivia wondering what her husband is up to, followed by their kids and some guests.

Delhi 1857 quickly gives way to Delhi 2006. Dalrymple too has snapped out of it. Flashing the new Bob Dylan CD, he asks me, “Did you like Modern Times? I really did. Especially Someday Baby.” I look at the face of Bahadur Shah Zafar on the cover of The Last Mughal on the table. I don’t think he would have minded Dylan’s latest shayaris.

Dalrymple tells me that his daughter has recently introduced him to the music of Gnarls Barkley, which he quite enjoys. He has tried to return the gesture by introducing his children to his kind of music. “It’s not been too successful. But they like Talking Heads, especially Burning Down the House.” For Dalrymple, as was the case for the protagonist of his latest book, music is very important. Even when he’s writing, there’s something play ing on the sound system, whether it’s the Estonian cellist Arvo Pärt, or the slightly less classical strains of the French group, Nouvelle Vague, or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries – which he rather disconcertingly starts to sing for me.

The discussion veers to the Rolling Stones (“You must read the best piece ever on Keith Richards. It’s a 1993 write-up by Brian Apple yard.”). He tells me how immensely kicked he was when he heard from some friends that “Mick (Jagger) had picked up a copy of White Mughals and was reading it!” Which other writer or historian will play music for the listening pleasure of a historical figure? “During my research for The Last Mughal, I was sitting at a desk at the Punjab State Archives in Lahore. When I was told that I was facing Anarkali’s tomb next to the wall, I just had to play Pyar kiya to darna kya from Mughal-e-Azam on my laptop. It felt good playing the song to her.”


But the man who’s fascinated by the history of Delhi also lives in the present of malls, multiplexes, et al. Doesn’t all this modernity exasper ate William Dalrymple, the man who lives and breathes on the past? “Oh, I really like the malls and multiplexes and the sheer energy of Delhi. I love taking my walks at Lodhi Garden and going through Lutyens’ Delhi. Even Gurgaon with all its constructions is so much more exciting than, say, Suffolk or somewhere else.”

But like any other Dilliwalla, he has his pet peeves about his city. “What do I hate about Delhi the most? Top on the list has to be the power situation. How can the capital of India have three-hour-long powercuts? It’s a scandal! Also, there’s nothing that can be done in this city without bribing someone. But what I really can’t handle is the summer heat.”

Aha, so Dalrymple is a Scotsman from the Firth of Forth after all! No matter how many pathbreaking, trailblazing books on Delhi he writes, he has to leave town every April 8 to run away. “It’s horrid, the heat!” he says, giving me a clue to what was possibly the real reason why the British left India in 1947.


The first time I had met Dalrymple was in 1998. Then, he was reading Alex Garland’s The Beach and drinking chilled beer in a hotel room. Eight years later, he’s off alcohol for a while (“Got to watch this,” he says pointing to his soon-to-be-vanquished Delhi belly) and is reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Since 1998, he’s been trying to reinvent himself as a historian who has the talent for a narrative hookline. He tells me he doesn’t care much for historical novels because he “wants to know what really happened.” There goes my great novel set during the Partition of Bengal getting his enthusiastic approval on the blurb.

So what’s he writing next? “I seem to have a four-year menstrual cycle. It will be a book on Akbar,” he says, referring to Book No. 2 of the four-volume Mughal history he has set out for himself. “In between, I’ll be also be doing a travel book on Hinduism and Islam.” News flash: The travel-writer has not been bludgeoned to death by the historian, after all.

Just before I set off on my own travels (to exotic Connaught Place) and Dalrymple on his (to Bali for a holiday before the book tour gobbles him up), I wish him best of luck for The Last Mughal.

As he looks up in the middle of opening envelopes and reading letters, I stop and stare at him before walking briskly past the trampoline in the garden and dodging the empty pots awaiting plants. Egad! I could have sworn that in that early evening light of Mehrauli, the old boy looked exactly like GeorgeNathaniel Curzon!

First Published: Oct 15, 2006 16:18 IST