William Dalrymple is one of Britain’s finest and most extensive historians on India in the contemporary age. He is the bestselling author of many books such as The White Mughuls: The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize, and the Hemingway and Kapucinski Prize winning Return of a King. In an exclusive interview with India Currents, he talks to Preeti Hay about his latest book The Anarchy, and reveals the most shocking truths about the East India Company as the predecessor to the British rule in India, the complexities involved in the colonization and his recently concluded US tour.

Congratulations on The Anarchy. It’s surely a Masterpiece! What sparked your interest in the East India Company?

Thank you! Certain periods in history are very well studied such as the freedom struggle, the great Mughuls, Ashoka, and then there are periods in between when very little work is done. Between the Mughuls and the Raj was one such period, so much was not known and that is what drew me in. 

Unlike your other books that have focused on either individuals or shorter periods, this is the longest period you have covered. How was the process of research and writing different for this one?

That is correct. It took six years which is far longer than usual for me. There were massive reading lists to go through. Anarchy is mainly based on the Company’s own voluminous miles of records in Britain and at the National Archives in New Delhi. My long time collaborator, Bruce Wannell, helped translate from Persian sources. And there was some material in French as well. We spent months at the National Archives in Delhi, the British Library, provincial libraries in Rajasthan and Pondicherry. 

I was taken by the ruthlessness of the acts of power described in the book. Were these secretly recorded or were they just the order of the day?

Well, the 18th century was a rough period. One of the interesting things was what gave the company its edge was that so many financial and banking classes in India backed it. It was the least worst option. Indians ranging from Marwaris to Banarasi bankers were competing for the company’s attention. 

When I talk to British audiences they see the ruthlessness of their ancestors in a different light. One sees 2000 white middle class traders that conquered 2 million people by borrowing money from Indian bankers and paying Indian sepoys to fight. If you think that true, that is the most shocking thing. It was not white British soldiers winning these battles ( there are some of those for example the royal regiments that fought in the Maratha War) but largely they were Indian soldiers.

When I speak to Indian audiences, they are shocked to know of the collaboration between Indians and the company.

Shah Alam, the last Mughal emperor is the spine of this book. It is essentially his story that you tell. Unlike other famous Mughul emperors, he is not so well known. Where was he lost in History?

Shah Alam was one of history’s losers. History was written by victors and that’s where he was lost. He was good looking, young, dashing, brave and a poet at heart. Initially he had many resources but by the end, he turns into an old man who is blinded, an emperor of an illusory empire. He is the symbol of the final decline of the Mughals. This is a very melancholic story, even if you are not a fan of Mughla rule, like many nationalists today (they see them as foreign), you are still touched by his story.

You compare the East India Company to the Mega corporations of today. That seems strikingly true. How do you see these corporations’ impact on modern India?

There is no direct connection to East India Company, thank God! Microsoft does not have nuclear jets! Exxon mobil doesn’t have fleets of fighter air crafts. But it’s true, large corporations can compete and lobby to impose their will onto the nation state. And part of this story is the power of cooperation against the power of the state. The corporation is nationalized in 1858, but for much of this book the corporation is able to impose its will on the state and the will of the legislature. There are parallels to modern times, for example, the influence of Exxon Mobil on Bush Government and in India the links between corporations like Reliance and Tata to the Modi Government.

Colonization of India is a complex subject, it is not black or white. How does your book deal with its complexity and the judgements associated with it?

I think that is the main point of the book. We are all brought up in different parts of the world with black and white national images of history. In old fashioned British textbooks, the Raj was the jewel of the crown and glory of England. For old fashioned Indian text books, it’s a story of repression, resistance and liberation. But as we see there are many greys in between. Firstly it was a corporate event rather than a national event in reality, it was done by a corporation and not the British government. It was seven Indians who helped bring that about!

Let’s talk about your narrative style. I’m a big fan, you make history read like prose to me. What is your writing technique and practice like?

There are many ways to write history as there are a novel. What I am doing is not different from many writers like Anthony Beevor who wrote about the second world war using all the news from the soviet archives, writing history like a thriller. My Guru of sorts, Steven Runciman, wrote A History of the Crusades about Crusades of the Byzantine empire. So I try to write like these writers. My technique is primarily research based. I spent 5 years researching this book, creating card indexes, and then immersing myself in writing. It took me a year of locking myself down and writing all day, it was like the final year of university, you give it your all. 

How has your relationship with India evolved over all these years?

India has been my second home since I was 18. I have spent more time in India than Britain. As everyone knows, India can be a frustrating place, it is not at all a beautiful golden hour with cattle walking home in light of Bengali sunsets. There are times its quite the opposite–floods outside or endless Delhi traffic–but one thing is for sure, it’s never boring. For a historian and a journalist like me, I am like a child in a sweet shop. There is so much to write about.

How was your USA and Canada tour this past September?

I gave lectures about the book and the audience responded very positively. Very few people knew of the East India Company’s existence. It shocked the audience to hear this story.

What was the one thing you were surprised by in your research?

What most surprised me was that this was such an under researched area. I had no idea of the scale of the story when I embarked on this journey. It radically changed my view. 


Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in various publications including Times of India, Khabar, Magazine, India Currents, Yoga International and anthologies of fiction and poetry.

Preeti Hay has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Media and Journalism and a Master's degree in English Literature, majoring in Post Colonial Literature. She has worked for Indian publications including The Times...