William Dalrymple is a hard man to pin down, as befits an award winning travel/history writer who has written about the Middle East, Asia and in particular India. A couple of tentative interview arrangements are scuppered through travel plans – but when we finally manage to get hold of him, the conversation is well worth the wait.
Increasingly, it seems, the West is being presented with the idea of an inevitable polarisation of civilizations, the famous clash of civilizations suggested in the media post 9/11. Much of Dalrymple’s work, both in his books and journalism, tends to contradict the idea of this trend, and highlights places and periods when religions and cultures peacefully, and profitably, co-existed together. His last book White Mughals details the love affair between a British Soldier and an Indian Princess.
What inspired White Mughals?
Two things – a growing awareness that the story of the British in India was sort of like the tip of the proverbial iceberg; the bit that we kept seeing in films, on television, in bookshops was the Raj, which is a period of only 90 years running from 1857-1947, a very brief period, a flash in the pan in terms of history. The British had been in India since the time of Shakespeare. For most of that period, for four fifths of that period, a completely different set of power relations, sexual relations, cultural relations operated – and this meant that in a sense the more interesting, more multicultural sense of the British in India had been completely forgotten in a wash of Victorian, and subsequently Indian nationalist, propaganda. It always seemed to me much more interesting.
Specifically, White Mughals came about when I wrote City of Djinns. I discovered this chap called William Fraser, who was a ‘white mughal’, had an Indian wife, wore Indian clothes, and had sort of rejected his own culture and accepted north Indian culture. And I'd never come across a character like this, and I wrote him off as unique and interesting character – I likened him to an Indian version of Kurtz in Heart of darkness. But in my subsequent research, it became increasingly apparent that there were a great many of these. I received letters from people after City of Djinns with comments like &ldquoI read with great interest the passage about William Fraser, because my great grandfather…” and they'd include these fantastic pictures of some bearded man, with an Indian wife, and smoking a hookah. So for three years I worked on White Mughals, as a general history of all these different guys but Kirkpatrick gradually took over, because the sources for him were so good, they were fabulously good, both from the Indian and the British side. The girl in question in the relationship was from the very top tier of society, and he got her pregnant outside of marriage, and because of the nature of the scandal there were enquiries, reports, complaints and all these kind of things, all of which survived.
So in the end, you have a fabulously well documented love affair, onto which I've appended all these other characters who come in and out of that one story. It's a novelistic style narrative, writing about this love affair, but it is entirely non-fiction.
Was it difficult to write – as it’s a departure from the travel writing style of your previous books?
I'd always written before in the first person, so it was very different in that sense, but in some ways I found it very easy to write, because after you'd done the research and assembled all your material, the writing part was much easier, easier, that is, than the research and finding the right material. Travel writing is, in a sense, more creative because you've to a greater extent than history, where you have a limited amount of material, with travel writing you have a huge amount of material and you have to select in the same way that a novelist selects, you have to select and tailor your material – so in a sense, even if you never stray at any point from the strict historical truth, in your travel writing you're still engaged in a far more creative endeavour, and I find that more difficult. I find travel writing very easy to do, but it's very difficult to do well. History writing though, when you have a strong narrative as I did in White Mughals, you just follow through on it. You don't create your own narrative direction as you would in a travel book.