William Dalrymple has won a clutch of awards, including the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, scoured libraries and archives in England, India, Pakistan and Kabul. Image Credit: Supplied picture

He has been shot at in Kashmir and in Palestine. He narrowly missed a sniper attack and was nearly killed while researching a book in Afghanistan.

He accidentally stumbled upon invaluable manuscripts that helped him pen a widely acclaimed book that is now being made into a film. He has met incredible people – from possessed temple dancers to holy men living in cremation grounds...

All this may sound like the adventures of Indiana Jones, but these are the everyday events in the life of award-winning writer William Dalrymple when he’s busy gathering material for his best-selling books.

Dalrymple calls them life-defining moments; instances when he had incredible experiences that in some way changed his professional or personal life forever.

The most recent incident was when he was with a group in Afghanistan. “I was researching my latest book The Return of a King – Shah Shuja and the first battle for Afghanistan,’’ says Dalrymple, who has literature in his blood – his father was a cousin of Virginia Woolf.

“I was looking for Afghan sources who would provide more information on a crucial period in the history of Afghanistan – the British invasion in 1839 and the revolt by the Afghans, which culminated with Britain’s greatest military humiliation. The army of the most powerful nation in the world was ambushed in retreat by poorly equipped tribesmen.’’

Dalrymple, who has won a clutch of awards, including the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, scoured libraries and archives in England, India, Pakistan and Kabul for details of the war but wasn’t satisfied with what he found. The perfectionist that he is, he also wanted to see the place where the battle between the British troops and the Afghans was fought.

A close call

“I knew that while Kabul was pretty safe – you had to be unlucky to be shot at – places like Kandahar were properly dangerous,’’ says Dalrymple. “On arrival in Kandahar I learnt that the car that came to fetch me from the airport received a sniper shot through the rear window!’’

Although no one was hurt, Dalrymple admits it was worrying, but it did not stop him from wanting to retrace the route taken by the 18,000 British soldiers in 1842 while fleeing Kabul for Jalalabad – a distance of about 130km.

“The only way I could write this book was by retracing the route. While the first part was OK, the second part of the route was in Taliban territory,’’ says Dalrymple. “I met a guy in the government who had read and enjoyed a book of mine and it kind of helped.

He set me up with a former Mujahideen commander, and together with a team of gun-toting guys we set off for Gandamak where the last massacre of British troops took place. Their bones still lie on top of a hill there.’’

Intelligence sources had cleared him to pass through as long as he didn’t spend a lot of time there. “But we didn’t know that day was the day the government forces decided to launch an operation to clean up the poppy farms in the region, which happened to be on the way to Gandamak, and the villagers decided to resist. They marshalled people with guns to shoot down those who came to clear their fields.

“We were saved by the fact that the guy who was taking us there decided to visit his village, which he hadn’t done in years. The people there were so happy to see him that they cut a sheep and threw a huge feast. By the time we were through lunch it was late afternoon and too late to carry on so we had to return to Jalalabad.

“Only when we reached the city did we learn that a fierce battle had raged in the place we were heading and if we had carried on, the villagers would have surely mistaken us for government troops and we would have been…’’ he pauses for a moment, “toast”.

“It was gluttony that saved us,’’ he laughs, leaning back in his chair last year when he came for the Sharjah International Book Fair.

“It was close, but that trip was crucial to give a better perspective for this book,’’ he says flipping through a copy of Return of a King.

It’s this attention to detail, desire to “live the story” and copious research coupled with vivid and dramatic writing that have made his books so popular across the world. As a narrative historian, he is determined to leave no stone unturned in his quest to get as much detail as he can on the subject he is writing about. And if it means travelling across the world to some of the most dangerous places, then so be it.

“I was lucky that time in Afghanistan,’’ says the 47-year-old, adding that some of his other “life-defining moments’’ have been less harrowing. Like, for instance, the time he stumbled upon a treasure trove of manuscripts while researching for his celebrated book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.

Set in 1798, it tells the true story of the love affair between Captain James Kirkpatrick, a British officer in India, and Khair-un-Nissa, a noblewoman from Hyderabad, in the southern Indian state of what is now Andhra Pradesh.

Over four years Dalrymple had gathered an immense volume of information for his book.

“I got a whole set of Kirkpatrick’s letters [he was the East India Company Resident of Hyderabad in the early 19th century] from the India Office Records in London. But I wanted the Indian side of the story so I was searching in libraries and archives in Hyderabad for books, diaries – anything that would throw more light on this couple and their lives,’’ he says.

Frustrated that he couldn’t find documents that would provide the details he was looking for, he decided to make one final visit to Hyderabad for research. That time he hit pay dirt.

“I had about four hours to while away before catching a plane back to Delhi and decided to spend it in the bazaars of Hyderabad buying those intricately designed metalwork boxes that the city is known for, as gifts for the family.’’ However, since it was Sunday, few shops were open. “I finally found one in the old area of the city and asked a man there if he could help me find the boxes.’’

It must have been his English accent because the salesman led Dalrymple to a store that sold “bookses’’ [books]. But he was just as happy to rummage through the stacks of books and manuscripts in the shop.

“There in a box I chanced upon a bunch of letters and the history of Khair-un-Nissa – the heroine of my White Mughals – written by her uncle in the aftermath of the scandal that broke out due to the interracial marriage. It had every single detail of the story from the Indian side. Unbelievably it was just what I was looking for.’’ 

White Mughals went on to win the 2003 Scottish Book of the Year Prize underscoring Dalrymple’s ability to give narrative history a new definition. It is now also being made into a movie by none other than the Dark Lord – Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series – Ralph Fiennes. “He’s going to direct and star in the movie,’’ says the author.

Where his heart is

Dalrymple, who has written more than ten books, many of them set in the subcontinent including In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, The Age of Kali and the The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, is reluctant to live anywhere else but in Mehrauli, in Delhi, India. He goes on short holidays to Scotland and London every summer and says that from the first time he visited India in January 1984 he has never wanted to leave.

On his gap year and with a passion for travel and adventure, the then 18-year-old Dalrymple landed in Delhi on a cold foggy night. “I had spent my childhood in rural Scotland, on the shores of Firth of Forth and had no plans to visit India,’’ he says.

A history scholar who studied at Cambridge, he was more keen to go on a dig in an archeological site in Iraq. “But the job fell through at the last minute when Saddam Hussain closed the British School of Archaeology in Baghdad.’’

A friend who was going to India asked if Dalrymple would like to go along. “And at the last minute, just like that, I agreed,’’ he says. “It must have been a mixture of extreme strangeness and familiarity – the latter a result of the colonial rule – that I jumped at the chance to go along to India.’’

After backpacking and hanging out in Goa for a few weeks – a magnet for Westerners in India because of its pristine beaches – Dalrymple found himself being drawn to Delhi. “It was the ruins in and around India’s capital that fascinated me,’’ says Dalrymple. “I kept imagining all the history lying buried there.’’

He got himself a job in the Mother Teresa’s Mission, a charity that looks after the homeless and the poor in Delhi, and every day as soon as his work helping at the mission office was over, he’d head out to the city’s streets, exploring and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of India’s capital.

“I’ve never looked back… never really left India,’’ he says. “I am obsessed with the country and just cannot think of living anywhere else,’’ says the author who is a major force behind the highly respected Jaipur Literature Festival.

Perennially looking for fresh insights into the past, he believes being in India was the best thing that has happened to him. “Living in India has been so enriching. If I had maybe five more lives I’d want to live in India and I’d find more and more stories to write about.’’

Dalrymple, who is married to artist Olivia Fraser and has three children, Ibby, Sam and Adam, credits his love for the country to “a small trickle of Bengali blood that’s in me’’.

His maternal great-great-grandmother Sophia Pattle was the daughter of a Bengali woman. “I’m sure at some level the familiarity must have come from that. Heredity works in its own ways,’’ he laughs.

“Since leaving London, my life has been completely taken over and altered by India. Scarcity of water, electricity, the traffic jams… they can all make living in India extremely frustrating. But the pleasures and the rewards can be great too.

“As a writer and a reporter I find there’s a deep well of subjects to write about, whole worlds to explore in India and its neighbouring countries, subjects my contemporaries in many places can only dream of.’’

As much as he loves being in India, he says he finds it frustrating being an outsider even though he has lived in the country for so long. “But as a writer it keeps you sharp and there are a lot of things that still surprise you. There are things you don’t understand. There are things you keep asking questions about… India is so complicated. You can never get complacent and it is in that need to answer questions that my books come about.’’

He is convinced that the worst thing that can happen to a writer is to stop noticing things. “In London I don’t see anything because it is the backdrop of so much of my life there. I do not see the red buses, telephone boxes, black taxis… things that surprise people when they first arrive. They are almost invisible to me because they are so ordinary to me. 

“While the outsider can make errors and misunderstand things, he also does not take anything for granted and can also see things that the insider misses… he can make connections. He looks at everything with fresh eyes,’’ Dalrymple says. It is his almost certainly his ability to look at everything in a new light that the author uses when crafting his stories.

“India is so huge that after 30 years there is still stuff that I experience for the first time,’’ he says, alluding to the time he spent working on one of his most popular works, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a collection of stories about nine people from across the subcontinent, each of whom follows a different religious belief.

 “I enjoyed working on that one because I experienced so much during the time I was researching the book,’’ he says. He met hundreds of people and interviewed scores of potential subjects before choosing nine. “Why nine? Because that was the number of people I felt would work well in the book,’’ he laughs.

“I met some extraordinary people for the book,’’ says Dalrymple. “Including a theyyam artist, a temple dancer from Kerala; a Jain nun and a tantric who lives by a cremation ground in West Bengal. A tantric is a person who practises tantra, a Hindu belief system with elaborate rituals.’’

Which of the nine stories touched him the most? “The Jain nun’s,’’ says the author. “I was enormously moved by her story.’’ Jains are followers of Jainism, an Indian religion that believes in non-violence towards all living things. Conservative Jain nuns follow an extremely strict life and at a certain point in time, which is decided by their mentor or when they have a premonition, they fast until death. Before this they get rid of the hair on their head by pulling out each strand one at a time.

“I spoke to one nun, Prasannamati, for barely 48 hours but her story touched me deeply. I don’t know if she’s alive now,’’ he says. When they met she had already begun the long, drawn-out fast to death where the nuns first give up solid foods, then liquid, then slowly stop breathing.

“I met her by sheer chance, after having interviewed several others,’’ he says. She was on a pilgrimage in Karnataka, southern India, when he chanced upon her, he says.

One reason so many Indians loved Nine Lives – it sold more than 35,000 copies in hardback alone in India – is because there are very few works of this kind. Not many people write this kind of book, says Dalrymple.

He admits to having received some criticism when he set out to write this book. “The intelligentsia in India presume that any foreigner writing about India is either going to be writing about sadhus – holy men – or magic or the maharajas, and this book fit the first category.

“When I used to tell people I am writing a book about mysticism or spirituality, they’d groan. On the one hand you have to constantly prove you are innocent of colonial views while on the other hand, coming from a different land, you tackle subjects from a different point of view.’’

And how does he deal with criticism?

“Ah, this book received a lot of mixed reviews. One critic – diplomat-turned-politician Mani Shankar Aiyar – said it was all rubbish and wondered why people were spending so much time on it. You learn to take it in your stride. But it’s always nice to get good reviews,’’ he says. “It’s nicer to hear people say you are a genius than to hear people say you are an idiot.’’ He laughs. “And I must say, I’ve had a fair share of both.’’

A literary pioneer

Dalrymple, who says he is hugely influenced by Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, among others, is happy that “while there are people writing a lot of non-fiction, no one is doing this kind of stuff: narrative non-fiction/history. So I am kind of a pioneer. And I’m not complaining,’’ he smiles.

With the success of Nine Lives, has he considered writing a sequel? After all there
are many more subjects and stories to tell.

“There are,’’ he agrees. “In fact they were amazing stories that I did not use for various reasons. But I make it a point not to cover the same territory twice. You have to keep doing new tricks or you could get complacent and become boring – for you and the reader.’’

So what is he working on next? The writer, never one to miss an opportunity for adventure, says he is considering a book on how Christianity arrived in India. “I’ve begun to do some research... I’m not sure where it will lead me,’’ he shrugs.

Whatever it is, the next book will surely be set in the region, he says. “There are so many stories waiting to be told.”