Financial Expess , Sunday, February 04, 2007
William Dalrymple came to Delhi for the first time in 1984, and since then, the writer-historian has had a near-obsessive fascination for Delhi – which he describes as the finest city “between Constantinople and Canton”. His City of Djinns also has Delhi as its theme. He lives between London, Scotland and Delhi, with his artist wife Olivia and three children.
He has also written and presented three television series, one of which, Indian Journey, won an award at the BAFTA in 2002. Dalrymple is a passionate advocate of historians and intellectuals consciously stepping out of their academic confinement and “making sure that their work is widely available and accessible to the general public, in a true democratic spirit”.
His sixth book, The Last Mughal, a chronicle of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Delhi in the nineteenth century, was out late last year and drew its share of controversies, with Dalrymple reportedly referring to Indian historians as “lazy” in press interviews just before the launch. However, he told The Indian Express Group recently that he was misquoted and was at pains to emphasise that “India has many, many thousands of dedicated historians” whom he respects. Some excerpts from the interaction:
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: I think The Last Moghul stirred up controversy on two quite different fronts – one was the method and style of writing and one was the contents, what it actually said about 1857.
As far as the style of writing is concerned I think The Last Mughal stylistically and in approach was something very unremarkable taken within the context of my contemporaries in London. There has been in the last 20 years a return to narrative. A move away from the pure analysis with which historians tended to deal with historical issues, till the ‘70s. From the ‘80s onwards, there was a return to how history writing had always been done from the time of Gibbon and so on. Which was the way that one would expect with a word that actually contains the word ‘story’ within it.
History is the telling of things past. Now there are many ways of doing that. History is a city with many mansions. And I think that people living in one historical mansion can learn a great deal from other mansions. What I think is unusual in the situation in India is that there is only analytical history, very, very few people are writing narrative at all. And there was a certain amount of confusion among critics about what I was doing which simply wasn't a question that I was asked anywhere else.
Moving on from the style of the book, which is very straightforward narrative history, to the contents, I think the thing that raised most surprise is the emphasis the book puts on the religious rhetoric of 1857. Every generation of historians are imprisoned in their own time, whether they realise it or not. They think they are being objective and looking at things dispassionately without often being aware of the degree to which they are trapped in the concerns and fashions of their time.
So if you look at the historiography of 1857 you find that in the great rush of works that was produced in 1957, 10 years after Independence and 100 years after the outbreak of the uprising, many of the books and articles produced had a nationalist and economic spin.
People saw the uprising of 1857 in the terms that they had seen the liberation of the country 10 years earlier played in front of them and they saw 1857 through the prism of their own times. Working on this book from 2001 onwards, it was very obvious to me that religion was one of the great motivating forces of human history. Reading the rhetoric of Delhi I felt Marxist historians had hugely underplayed the role that at least the language of religion played in the public pronouncements.
You can argue endlessly about motives, but what you can show empirically though is the rhetoric that was used, the speeches which were made, the leaflets that were produced and the articles which were written in newspapers.
And it was very clear empirically that within Delhi, which is what I was looking at, not in the wider historiography of 1857, but more specifically in the case of Delhi, that overwhelmingly this was talked about as a war of religion. And words. The word jihad is used very frequently in Delhi in 1857 as is the whole sub-stratum of the mujahideen.
It is extraordinary how more than 100,000 upper caste Hindus from eastern UP and Bihar by origin, chose to come to the Mughal emperor, a Muslim and asked him to lead them in this uprising. To me, this was also something which had been underplayed and it seemed very important to emphasise the centrality of Delhi and the centrality of the Mughal and the myth and the Mughal in the historiography of 1857.
SHEKHAR GUPTA: There is a contradiction because the symbolic ruler for whom they were fighting was a Muslim…
But then again, significantly a Muslim who is regarded by the jihadis and the extremist is not quite a proper Muslim. Because he celebrates Hindu festivals, because he has a Hindu mother.
What you see very strongly is this urge among the court and the city elite for there to be no question of a division between Hindus and Muslims throughout the uprising. And the court and elite and sepoys all go to huge efforts to maintain a common front.
For reasons both of taste within Zafar’s own very pluralistic outlook and for reasons of real politick, there is going to be no rebellion if the fracture on religious lines is allowed to grow. He hits into action and the danger is averted.
What is interesting though is the speed with which after 1857, as the British focus their revenge on the Muslim community, who they hold responsible for the uprising, and very quickly the myth grows among the British that this is a Muslim driven conspiracy.
And in the prosecution of Zafar there is talk, which again obviously rings very resonant today of an international Muslim conspiracy running to Mecca and Tehran, and bogus evidence is produced to bolster this in court. It is the Muslims who are blamed by the British.
It is in the aftermath of 1857 that one sees the beginning of the rift between the two communities which will 90 years later result in partition.
AMBREEN KHAN: What explains your passion for the Mughals… why so much of them?
As far as Mughals are concerned, my interest has always been in the culture of Delhi, which is a mixed culture. Its certainly not an exclusively Muslim culture. It is the interplay of Hinduism and Islam in Delhi which interests me. It is in the porous character, it is in the syncretism, it is in the pluralism.
I don’t think of myself as someone who writes exclusively on Muslim or Mughal matters. But Delhi is the focus of my interest because it’s the place where I’ve lived for most of the last 20 years and I’m inspired by this place.
BHAWESH MISHRA: Did the policies of the colonial regime under the crown from 1858 onwards set in motion political events that led to the division between Hindus and Muslims or were the seeds sown in the events of 1857?
First of all, I should say that I am not at all a specialist on the late 19th century early 20th century so I should be
very careful before making pronouncements about what happened then. What one does see though in the immediate aftermath of 1857 is the end of this composite civilisation. That world ends very abruptly and completely in 1857.
And what you find is that the high Mughal culture which is a mixed culture and goes out of its way to be inclusive in the later Mughal period is finished and not only finished but discredited. The Muslims have lost the dominant position. The Hindus grow very quickly in wealth.
BHAWESH MISHRA: From your writing, you certainly don’t think 1857 was a Sepoy Mutiny, nor the first national war of independence fought by the Indian people against the colonial regime. Where exactly do you place yourself?
It’s a complicated issue, which is why it remains a chestnut which generations of historians will chew over long after I’m in my grave. It started very emphatically as a sepoy mutiny. And throughout 1857 the sepoys remained the military backbone of the rebel forces. Which is why it isn’t entirely incorrect to call it a sepoy mutiny. Nonetheless, there were civil uprisings in Lucknow and Delhi, there were princely associations in places like Jhansi, there were peasant uprisings in the Doab and the rural Awadh.
Many different things are going on. The reason why the phrase sepoy mutiny has survived as long as it has in parlance is because of the centrality of the sepoy in what happened and the fact that they were the spark which lit the whole flame. But it is clearly more than a sepoy mutiny which is why I don’t use the phrase at all in the book, I call it an uprising.
Was it the first National war of independence? Well it certainly wasn't the first because you can point to many other acts of resistance against the British. Was it a war of independence? In some ways it was. While in Delhi the rhetoric is religious, they talk about kafirs and Christians rather than the British or the imperialists.
In the petitions in Delhi there is no phrase like ‘jang-e-azadi’ or freedom struggle. Instead what you have is fasad and danga or commotion and unrest, is how people are seeing it at the time. Nonetheless there is an element in which it is true to say that this is clearly an attempt to get rid of rulers who are seen to be the ‘other’.
SEEMA CHISHTI: You enraged a lot of Indian historians saying that you had unearthed a lot of material that no one had looked at. What was that about?
Someone wrote an article quoting from the intro saying that these things had not been looked at. One headline said Dalrymple Attacks ‘lazy historians’. Which is not the word I used or would dream of using.
Outlook then contacted Irfan Habib who at that stage had not seen a copy of the book and read him this headline and he responded.
There are many, many thousands of Indian historians working in India who I respect a lot. But my real point stays. The Mutiny papers are a collection of 20,000 pieces of paper and the primary record of the sepoys in the largest anti-colonial riots take place against any European power anywhere in the world in the entire 19th century. The sort of stuff one would expect generations of PhD students to work at, has by and large been completely ignored in historiography.
Of the papers we called up, 75% had never been accessed before. It is impossible to imagine records of that centrality and importance of the French Revolution sitting in a library in France having only had intermittent and partial attention.
COOMI KAPOOR: You mentioned that a lot of educated Indians who study history are not in a position to read primary sources due to their lack of language skills. But the charge made against you is that you also sub-contract your research work because you can’t read the languages yourself.
It is a very fair charge. Very few historians have a huge spread of languages in different cultures.
Throughout historical establishments you have widespread use of translations. It is better to have sub-contracted translation but use important sources which have not been previously looked at than simply to rely on colonial sources only.
MINI KAPOOR: Tell us where you found parts of Delhi that are still alive today.
The most obvious place where you can still see a mixed Delhi is somewhere like Nizamuddin, which is still very much the same as Zafar’s world.
It is Sufi, the dominant current at court. It is an inclusive Islam that admits non-Muslims. And that open pluralistic form of Islam was the form of Islam which was dominant at the Delhi Court prior to 1857.
But it isn’t just at Sufi shrines, this is the supreme achievement of Independent India to remain democratic and to remain pluralistic.
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Has Indian history become so politicised?
I think you can be accessible, well written and still be political. I think what must be remembered is that the intellectual (and this is recognised in countries like the US much more than in India or the UK) has a duty to make his work more accessible to the general public.
History and popularising it, making it more accessible is crucial.
For example, what happened in Ayodhya in 1992 — the demolition of the mosque — would never have happened if all those who had gathered there had read history. Myths prosper in the absence of history. That’s the real relevance of history in modern times.
MANINI CHATTERJEE: Do you think one reason why Indians are not writing enough non-fiction is because they lack the resources? The kind of advances or resources that Indian publishers or research institutes will give is a pittance compared to what Western scholars get.
Indian authors are not known for receiving small advances. There is largesse available if you have a good proposal. I didn’t get my advance for nothing. I got it because I had written other books, which sold well.
But you are correct, I would not be able to research this book without the success of my earlier work. However, there is certainly no racial discrimination in these matters.
KANIKA GEHLAU T: Jumping subjects, do you think the Shilpa Shetty incident reflected racial discrimination?
Yes. Sounded pretty much like racial discrimination to me. My understanding is that race is a live issue in India, Britain and anywhere in the world still.
We are not colour blind. But as in so many things in life, it can play in different ways. I think a great number of things were going on in that room. I think there was a class issue, education issue and a beauty issue.
I think if Shilpa had been less beautiful and Jade Goody less ugly, none of this would have happened. I think race played a part but envy very clearly played a part and character.