Ambrose Bierce, legendary satirist and one of the pioneers of the American short story, once said, “God alone knows the future, but only a historian can alter the past.” Now, ‘Bitter Bierce’ might sound like he was on one of his riffs about the fundamentally malicious nature of man, but he’s more accurate than you would think at first. (My own understanding of the Second World War is inevitably caught up with William Shirer) Consider the fact that for most people, history is restricted to phantom pages from the schoolbooks of Christmas Past. Consider also, that if your childhood was anything like mine, those books are abysmal, soporific affairs. (Mine had a page-length photograph of Lenin… with just a paragraph or two of text to go with it.) I think you’re getting my drift by now.
This is precisely where a writer like William Dalrymple steps in. His books like The Last Mughal and The White Mughals are now staples; rather uniquely, they are bestsellers and acknowledged classics in India. When I started living by myself in Delhi, there was a moment when I remarked excitedly (not to mention redundantly) to a friend, “That is straight out of City of Djinns!”
Dalrymple’s latest book Return of a King deals with the First Afghan War (1839-42), and paints an unforgettable portrait of Shah Shuja, (grandson of Ahmed Shah Abdali and head of the Sadozai clan) among other characters. Return of a King is full of vivid little character sketches, perhaps essential for a story like this, overflowing with characters like a Tolstoy novel. Quintessential Dalrymple lines like “The meticulous but merciless Major-General George Pollock, commander of the Army of Retribution which laid waste to south-eastern Afghanistan and burned Kabul to the ground.” Because the First Afghan War has been much better-documented than some of his other subjects (like the White Mughals), are these little flourishes even more important? “Being well-documented is not the same as being well-studied,” he says, in a typically measured response, before elaborating. “This particular war has been very well-documented by British sources. They have reconstructed the war to an incredible level of detail. But there’s little else, really. There haven’t been too many attempts to record the other side’s story, so to speak. And the story itself is so strong; you have to be a pretty boring writer to screw this up.”
One often reads about novelists and poets complaining about how the conception of their next book is the most enjoyable stage of work, and how the actual writing itself is a pain. Is the conception or ideating process analogous to research for a non-fiction writer? “Absolutely, yes. The first bit (of the writing) is the most painful. Once the first hundred or so pages are out of the way, its fun. Research is the thrilling part. For this book, it was an unforgettable experience to go to Afghanistan and Poland.”
I would definitely make history more biographical, especially for young children. I think the Indian concept of building a social or political history through history schoolbooks is flawed and ill-suited to teaching kids.
Dropcap OnFor the last five years, though, Dalrymple the literary gadfly has been as much (if not more) in the limelight as Dalrymple the historian. As co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival (along with Namita Gokhale), he has weathered the Salman Rushdie storm in addition to staring down several other controversies. In January last year, Hartosh Singh Bal wrote a stinging article in Open, where he pinpointed Dalrymple as being symptomatic of the Indian literary community’s ‘colonial hangover’, calling him “the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India”. The most infamous paragraph in Bal’s piece took a thinly-veiled swipe at Dalrymple, saying, “A residence in Golf Links or a farmhouse in Mehrauli is perhaps not the best beginning to an Indian sojourn, especially when you add to this a lack of knowledge of a local language and easy access to the people who frequent the Niira Radia tapes, but it has its comforts.” Dalrymple replied with an article of his own, to which Bal wrote a reply as well. As we sit sipping chai in the aforementioned Mehrauli farmhouse, I ask him what he feels about the whole thing, now that the dust has settled down. “I think it was a tactical mistake to reply there,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I think I pointed quite a few people to the original article that way. Hartosh was and is a friend, but the allegations in that article were frankly ridiculous. We (the Jaipur Literature Festival) have always had a healthy mix; two-thirds Indian writers and one-third writers from the rest of the world.”
Polemics like Bal’s are one thing, but how does Dalrymple deal with critics, especially the ill-informed, hack-tivist kind? Sounding philosophical, he says, “It’s a bit of a lucky draw there. There’s a small group of Indian critics who are unbelievably good, like Jai Arjun Singh, Chandrahas Choudhury, Nilanjana Roy and Supriya Nair. From there, it’s a massive drop, a mess really. You never know if you are getting a well thought-out review or a moronic rant from someone with an axe to grind. If you’re unlucky, you could get eviscerated. Luckily, the new book has been reviewed by a surprising number of people who actually know their Afghanistan.” Dalrymple looks restless now, fidgeting with the ends of his kurta. His daughter’s History homework beckons and he would like to help her as soon as he can. I ask him what he would do if given the charge to redesign the History curriculum in schools across the country.
“I don’t know whether it’s the textbooks, or the way of teaching,” he says. “I would definitely make history more biographical, especially for young children. I think the Indian concept of building a social or political history through history schoolbooks is flawed and ill-suited to teaching kids.” A smiling boy with braces walks into the room; it’s his son. As I prepare to take his leave, Dalrymple delivers a parting shot. “People often forget that the word ‘story’ is hidden in ‘history’.”