India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
William Dalrymple, a renowned award-winning Scottish historian has written several acclaimed books on Indian history, many of which are now bestsellers.
His most recent collection, packaged as The Company Quartet, consists of four books – The Anarchy, White Mughals, Return of a King, and The Last Mughal. They span over two hundred years of colonial history in India, the decline of the Mughal Empire, and the rise of the East India Company.
AR: You began as a travel historian, and have written acclaimed historical books that appeal both to scholars and ordinary history buffs like me.
People of my generation increasingly gravitate towards short-form content, videos, TikTok, Instagram reels, and travel vlogs. What would you say to them about picking up a 550-page book like The Anarchy or White Mughals?
WD: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to see someone reading books and having an interest in authors.
I have been in all kinds of different things in my life. Before I was a travel writer, I was a foreign correspondent, and have been a feature writer for magazines. I turned my attention to history almost 20 years ago, which is what I studied in college at Cambridge.
I have to say I have not noticed the generation which uses TikTok or Instagram having any problem at all with fat books, as long as they are engaging and interesting. Your generation grew up on Harry Potter which is one of those big fat books, but people read them even when they were 7 to 10 years old, because they were incredibly engaging, because they had characters. They told stories of good and bad and evil and heroism. Just as in all ages, whether it’s people gathered around a campfire or Indian sages telling the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, or watching Star wars or these sorts of stories and oral histories attract people if they’re well done, they would draw people in.
My aim with history has always been to not just try and aspire to the highest scholarly standards but also to tell stories with characters, which is what history is. It is a story. The word “story” is embedded in the name history and you know there are many different ways to tell history in the same way that there are many ways to write a novel. I think history is full of fascinating times and you can research them with great rigor but tell them with great verve and it’s possible to do both. That’s what I aim to do in my books.
AR: That’s a really interesting answer. It makes sense how books can still survive in the short-form content age.
WD: I should also say, as well as doing books, I also do podcasts. I have a podcast called Empire that went straight to number one on the British charts when it opened and has more than a million downloads every month. You know these things can be put into different formats. It doesn’t have to necessarily go in a 500-page book. Anyone interested in the history of India can listen to these podcasts. This is our first series on India, then we have the history of the Middle East, which is a second series. Empire podcast is available on Spotify, Apple, or on Google.
AR: You approach history and see it as a storytelling form. What goes into writing one of your books from start to finish?
WD: I’m not saying that this is the way to write history or the only way to write history or even the best way to write history. This is how I write my history so take it or leave it. (laughs)
I normally take four or five years to write one of these books. The Company Quartet I began in 1999 and finished in 2019. So it is 20 years of work and so on an average of 4 years for a book. The first year starts when I am finishing some other book and launching it, going around the world giving lectures and that’s the time when I start reading the existing literature on the subject. Honing and refining what I want to write about. I will travel with my Kindle or a pile of paperwork and sit on the flights, waiting for the delayed aircraft, whatever it is, reading.
Year two is normally me going into archives. My main base has been the Indian National Archives in Delhi which is like everything else in India, run by the government. Difficult to access, frustrating at times, but ultimately if you jump through the hoops it works.
It’s actually a very good place to be based if you’re writing about India.
And my four books have all been based really primarily on stuff I found in Indian National Archives. The other thing that is very important to understand is that imperial history has generally been written from the British side. There are very good Moghul records in Indian National Archives. There is a very, very strong Indo-Islamic tradition of memoir and autobiography. These start with the emperor Babur writing a memoir even as he’s invading India and many many of these exist in Persian which is written in the version that no one speaks anymore. It was the language of the court, just like French was the language of diplomacy across Europe, across Russia. The Persian language was used as much by Islamic Sultans as it was by Shivaji beginning with his career. With help from a Persian scholar, I worked through a variety of previous Mogul sources, which in a sense is the most valuable thing that emerged from these books, giving them an Indian perspective.
So year two is working through these sources getting the stuff out of the archives. Year three is only putting it all together. I have a dateline and I use old-fashioned card indexes which I find very useful. I bundle cards together in three types of boxes, one for people, one for the places, and one for topics and events. The cards just grow as I get near to the writing time and the dateline can be up to a thousand pages. Then finally putting it together, if and if I’ve done my work and everything is nicely ordered and quotes are cut up and usable bits and so on, it shouldn’t take too long.
I’ve written books in as little as 5 months and sometimes the longest is probably a year and a bit. If you can write it in one shot, you get a much better narrative flow than if you’re stopping and starting and you’re losing your thread. When I’m not writing non-stop I try to at least write each chapter non-stop.
The writing process is like taking an exam. You do nothing else, you don’t really go out, you don’t go to bars, and you don’t have drinks with your friends. It’s an austere period when you’re locked up for the duration but there’s ample compensation afterward.
The launch period can take as long as a year. Actually, there’s no work, just traveling, giving interviews, talking to people on zoom, and when you’re free at that time, go and sit by the pool or the ocean.
AR: That’s a very unique perspective on writing because what we see is just a new book and nothing else.
You said living in Delhi gives you a kind of an advantage over other scholars looking to pursue Indian history because the best primary sources are located in Delhi. Is there anything else that prompted you to live in South Delhi?
WD: Yeah, I live here 9 months a year. The great thing is that it is a mirror of London’s climate. When it is cold and miserable foggy and snowy in winter in London I’m sitting here peacefully on my terrace in the sun with parrots flying overhead.
Climate is important, but I just love this country and it’s been very good to me. Never boring, there’s always something going on from cultural, musical, art or history, or some weird religious ceremony. Something happens almost every day. I could keep going here for several lifetimes and I’m not running out of material. It’s a wonderfully amazing place where I’d be a child in a sweet shop.
AR: It’s beautiful, almost poetic to hear your love for India. I am Indian by descent but you have lived there longer than I have. Do you ever feel like a foreigner there?
WD: It’s an interesting question. It’s not an unusual situation in this globalized world. Many people like me started in one place where people have a particular skin color and ended up in another place where they have a different one. The way the world works at the moment is mostly brown people going west and fewer white people coming east, it’s almost the opposite of colonial times!
I can never be an Indian to the people that want to look at me like that. However good my Hindi is, however much I know the customs and the history and I behave according to the local ethics and morality but I will never be Indian.
And people will always regard me as a foreigner. On the other hand, being an insider-outsider like I am, is not a bad place to be the writer when you’re both observing something. If you live in the same place, you know the world around you becomes kind of invisible because it’s just ordinary. In the position I am in, I’m continually confronted by things that I don’t know.
While it can be stimulating professionally, it can be frustrating socially.
But you know many people today are not where they were born. There are many people, millions of Indians living in California.
AR: I grew up in America and I always want to be regarded as American – yes Indian American, but American first. You know a lot about India, you’re acquainted with its history and culture, and yet you may not be regarded as Indian. Are people in India ever surprised that you know so much more about India than they do?
WD: It is at times irritating to me when they read one of my books for the first time and say “I don’t know how you know so much about Indian history.”
Of course, I would know something. I have lived here 25 years and written about Indian history!
Yes, they are surprised they do not expect a white guy to talk about India. Sometimes they see some dodgy or ulterior motive. It is unusual, there are not many people like me who come to India and make their life here and write about it, but it’s a very nice life. I like it very much. I could leave tomorrow if I didn’t like it.
The only thing that worries me is the clouds on the horizon. I find that politically this is getting less and less easy for a writer to live in India. This can be charted very obviously in India’s place in the press freedom index. It slipped from 130 to 150 (out of 190), and says it’s not one of the least tolerant places of critical journalism.
The media now, almost all have fallen into line behind the power. And there is very thin skin here about criticism. So I mean it’s quite imaginable that in the course of time, I won’t be able to write freely.
That said, you know this is also a place where the economy is booming now and there is a very high growth rate, so I am very optimistic for India economically, less so politically.
AR: This is a perfect opportunity to ask this question. As a historian, you see many people in India right now who are basically historical revisionists. What do you think as ordinary people we can do about historical-political revisionism?
WD: There’s no harm in rewriting history per se, every generation does this. It’s the job of historians to rewrite history based on new data and evidence. We should not parrot what previous generations have said. You should be looking at data sources and facts, history changes in fact in light of new facts.
But it has to be based on facts, not religious nationalism, bigotry, prejudice or make-believe. The Indian university departments were dominated by left and often by Marxist historians are now challenged and they’re having constant clashes about different versions of history
Now in itself, there is no harm in having an orthodoxy challenged and having one dominant view challenged by another view, but when that orthodoxy is sort of rigorously enforced by the state, you are not free to write the truth as you said. Then things get into trouble and we are walking somewhere near that fine line.
It is also quite a refreshing moment in time. There’s a lot of interest in history, a lot of chat about it that ranges in quality from completely fictional WhatsApp forwards to also newspapers and magazines where people like you are interested in learning what the truth is. So it’s not a bad moment to be having strong views about history and to be able to back it up with facts and research. I hope that India remains a loud, clamorous, diverse, and argumentative place for any strong imposition of one view to be imposed.
AR: Are there any lessons to be learned from the past with such surges about religious or national identitarianism?
WD: Yes – the simple, simple fact is that there are waves of these things, left-leaning to right-leaning. But often these things go on in decades-long cycles, so I don’t think we are at the peak of this government, particularly when there is no opposition. There are many grown-up and sensible voices in this government. The question is where they win out over some extremist views.
AR: In Anarchy, you talk about chaotic times particularly when the East Indian company took over. In America, we learn about the history of sending companies to take over other places – for example the Dole Pineapple Company in Hawaii or United Fruit Company in Central America. Are there lessons to be learned from the past and the present about the rise of the East India Company in particular and how they took control?
WD: Yes, there are many many lessons to be learned. And this is not new and so it’s a mistake to believe as the Victorians believed that all power is reserved in the state. Corporations, as we know, can be very, very powerful. You’re sitting in California and around you literally in the 20-mile radius where you’re sitting are these vast companies – Apple, Meta. These companies have fast global reach and they have turnovers bigger than most of the countries in the world. Apple alone has a bigger turnover than all the nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. This means that these companies are extremely powerful. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily evil empires run by Voldemort. They are potentially centers of power that can drive the state in many many ways. The history of the East India Company shows that corporations have a great deal of power that they can exert in a variety of ways.
The East India Company exerted its power through military power, which is not likely to happen with these corporations. Even though Elon Musk possibly has space rockets but doesn’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles yet and is unlikely to get into that anytime soon. But with all the data harvesting going on, different data companies are listening to what you’re saying, noting products and tendencies we have in our social media or online life, and they are very, very powerful.
The East India Company shows that corporations can bribe politicians and lead to the collapse of the government. There are many examples in history whether it’s the Anglo-Persian company bringing down the democratic government of Mosaddegh in Iran, or you mentioned United Fruit in Guatemala running the famous Banana Republic, the whole question of whether the oil lobby has influence on the invasion of Iraq. We now know Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 so why was it invaded?
All these things show that the threat of corporate influence is far from over. Corporates are extremely powerful forces, not necessarily all bad. They provide employment, they generate wealth. We all really want a job, and we want money in a bank account, but they are things that the state needs to monitor and keep an eye on. So I think it’s an important lesson from history about the power of corporations. That’s the reason why I wrote the book in the last 20 years. I was doing both the study of colonialism and the study of the power of corporations.
In this sense, the fringe subject 20 years ago now suddenly feels very important as a real living lesson from the past about how our freedom can be trampled upon by a joint stock company. So yeah, this is exactly why I would like people to read this book and listen to my Empire podcast.
AR: Yeah, I agree, that is harrowing to think about. But this makes knowing history all the more important. Can you tell us about any new projects you’re working on or is it top secret?
WDL: No, not at all.
I don’t keep secrets in general and certainly not with my books. So my new book is called Golden Road. It is half-written. I’m going through chapter five out of nine chapters. It’s a very different book from the Company Quartet. This is a story of an earlier phase of Indian history and the period when Indian influence was dominant in Asia. This is the story of how Indian ideas such as Buddhism went to China, and other Indian ideas such as Hinduism went to Southeast Asia, leading to the creation of Angkor Wat, which is the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia, how Indian mathematics, numbers, and astronomy went westward to Baghdad and from Baghdad to Europe. This is the story of Indian Math going westward. I hope to get it done by June and by any luck published in October.
AR: Thank you so much for talking to us.
WD: It’s been really nice talking, thank you.