ZIYA US SALAM
Living in a multiverse
PHOTO: P.V. SIVAKUMAR
Indians may be good at living in many worlds at the same time, but we should be a little more aware of our own rich and layered history, feels seasoned writer and novelist William Dalrymple. Excerpts from a recent interview...
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: New narrative modes for history.
Indians are good at living in multiple worlds. Equally at ease with Nike and jootis, urban Indians speak English in their offices, and often their mother tongue at home. Just like getting into trousers for the workplace and slippin
g into a dhoti/pyjama or mundu at home. We fight over the depiction of a medieval princess in a celluloid work of fiction and stay silent on the neglect of the regional languages. Little wonder, William Dalrymple finds it all simply “incredible”.
“Indians live in so many worlds at the same time. You will find McDonald’s and KFC in New Delhi. But a few miles down the line in Madhya Pradesh you will find 3,000 kinds of saris! All over the world there is anxiety about our times being of one-world, one-culture. But Indians will remain more diverse. India has always had its uniqueness. Indians have successfully moved forward while embracing each new age, I have said in the City of Djinns. Some traditions get lost, others survive. India is never going to lose its soul in its quest for globalisation,” says Dalrymple, clad in a manner that is, well, uniquely his own. A brown cloak partially covers his green jacket. A cream shawl is flung over his shoulder, touching the nape at one end, and the sleeve of his blue kurta at the other. His green pants touch his tennis shoes even as his rimless spectacles tell you that the man is in touch with the latest fads in town! Never mind his bare head!
“There is a danger of globalisation, yes, but there is awareness to what is our own here. It is better to be modern than purely traditional,” says Dalrymple, even as he calmly tells a Standard Chartered representative to call up another time. “The real India is not there anymore. Not in films or literature. It is true that real India is not dominant in Indian English literature today, the way it did some 30-40 years ago. That is partially true because the NRI authors and their tales sell well abroad. Most of the characters in their novels are middle class or upper class Indians. But then that is true everywhere. Novel is a middle class vehicle. In British literature, the novel was exclusively middle class till the end of the War. Other sections were represented by their own voices. English novel was, and continues to be, by middle class, for middle class. However, having said that, you cannot judge a novel by the public school of the author. The book has to be judged as a piece of art.”
Alive and well
Talking of more and more authors being from the urban spaces, does it not worry him that regional literature in India still tends to be accessible only to those who know the language? And that purity of the language is getting diluted? “As far as the purity of the language is concerned, it is always a concern. Poor English is just poor English. Similarly, poor Tamil or whatever language is poor too. But personally, I have not come across too many Indian writers in English using words of vernacular languages. I am not really worried about the regional languages being accessible to all because I know that is a bridge under construction. Anyway, many of the regional works don’t need a translation. The Malayalam writers write for their own and feel satisfied. I cannot think of a major bestseller yet which is a translation! And many of the Malayalam works sell more than many of the so-called English bestsellers!”
Bestseller. That is a term one can easily associate with Dalrymple. His latest book, The Last Mughal, which gives more than a peek into the life and times of Bahadur Shah Zafar, is doing pretty well. “It has sold some 40,000 copies in hardbound and another 20,000 in paperback.” That is quite impressive for what is essentially a work of history done with a touch of novelty.
“There is room for an academic approach in history. It is important to have a least glamorous, straight-forward approach too. What is missing in Indian history works is somebody from the academic world who will address Indians interested in history in a specialised way. There is no P.J.O. Taylor or Fergusson. They make history come alive for the ordinary readers. Across the world you have historians with impeccable academic credentials who also reach out to the general public. In India, there is virtually nobody doing that,” he says, adding, mischievously, “I am glad it is like that. It has given me a career!” He finds it amazing that no Indian historian has come forward to adopt a narrative style in history telling. “You can gain reputation, you can augment your income. And you don’t have to dilute the substance.”
Dalrymple, who himself broke a few stereotypes when he started writing for a career — his brother, uncle, granduncle were all priests or wanted to be one — feels the world is changing. And along with it, also changing is a writer’s world. “Anywhere you go across the world, you will find Indians writing in English and being accepted and appreciated. In London, in New York, you will find many Indians writing fiction, winning prizes, hitting jackpots. But there are not many in the non-fiction category. The exception being Suketu Mehta who pulled off a coup with Maximum City. Nobody has taken all his learning and presented it in a specialised way for a special reader.”
He is quite unhappy that history is still not considered a professional choice by most. “Back in England, in Cambridge, people do history as a preferred option. Here the students go in for economics, management and law. Those who cannot get into anything else, go for history.”
However, it is not all disappointment. He has an explanation too for this state off affairs. “In India there is no culture of history. People lack that familiarity, that sophistication with the subject. Indian public does not read history widely. For instance, you go down in any book stall in any city and you will struggle to find a good biography of Indian kings, queens or even Presidents. There are not many books available on Shah Jahan, Sivaji and the like.”
He feels it has long term consequences, and does nobody any favours. The lack of awareness of the past impedes a fair dialogue in the present too. “Hardly anybody has reached the people with an account of history as it is in the language they understand or appreciate. What this lack of awareness leads to is a proliferation of myths. It gives rise to hagiographical figures. For instance, Sivaji was an emperor, a political figure. But many groups or people don’t look at him like that and there is not a fair dialogue on the subject. Then, because the people are not familiar with their past, there is a lack of respect towards their own monuments. Heritage suffers.”
Isn’t this lack of interest bred by historians who only adopt a rigorous academic approach in narrating the course of the past? In many circles many feel that a film like “Lage Raho Munnabhai” did more for Gandhi and non-violence than most history books combined!
The need today
“See, the way out is more books that handle the subject but address them to commoners. You have to take your research very seriously but you can choose to top it up in a more accessible manner. You have to take trouble with your prose.”
“Taking trouble with prose”. That is what William Dalrymple has always done. With a fineness uniquely his own. Instead of Dalrymple chasing the subjects, the books have followed him, right from the time he penned Xanadu, which stemmed from his journey from Jerusalem to Shangdu. “Don’t even remind me of that. It was one of my early works. And frankly, not my best.”
But the good thing is, he has not had to be at his best always to make an impression. And when he is, as in The Last Mughal, he is simply very good. Ask all those discerning men of letters who wear jootis and speak English! How they raved about the account of Zafar’s life!
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