Author Willam Dalrymple. Photograph: Sondeep ShankarPhotograph: Sondeep Shankar

October, 2009

The drive to meet William Dalrymple at his Mehrauli farm house is like going to meet a reclusive maharaja. It’s a long dusty road that seems headed nowhere. And yet the house arrives without a fuss, and it doesn’t disappoint.  

You hear children playing and roosters crowing. Goats rest under the shade of a large tree. The house too is crowded with quirky things – a royal red chattri, peacock feathers in a vase, colourful chirpy birds locked up in a cage. Between the kitchen and the garden is a lunch table. Journalists, photographers are gathered around the table whose two long sides have benches, and at the head of the table William Dalrymple is sitting on a wicker chair with a generous round backrest. The sort of chair in which a smaller man would be lost. At the other end from Dalrymple is his pet sulphur-crested Australian cockatoo, Albinia, perched on a T-stand. She says “hello”, and if you ask her nicely, “Albinia, how do they laugh… ha ha ha”, she’s happy to mock humans.

Lunch is just over. A few slim fish bones and grains of yellow rice remain on Jaipur blue pottery plates. Adraki Machchi was the main course, cooked by Dalrymple’s Baul friends who were in town to perform at his book launch party. A tent pitched in the garden is for his guests.

Willaim Dalrymple’s seventh book, also on India, Nine Lives, was launched last week in New Delhi in a jamboree usually reserved for sufi singers visiting from Pakistan. Booze was flowing, Dalrymple was reading long passages from his book and characters from his book, a collection of non-fiction stories of nine people, were dancing and singing. The show was running way past its deadline. But then no one in Delhi, leave alone his hosts British Council, can tell Dalrymple to pack up.

Dalrymple stands alone in a list of Delhi’s VVIPs who are always “most welcome” where ever they go. The gora sahib he nudged out of the list of Delhi’s white maharajas, Sir Mark Tully, was standing through most of the young sahib’s launch show. An ultra-sensitive Indian’s observation, both expats may remark. Probably true. But sensitivity, as I learnt, is not exclusive to Indians. Or, perhaps, writers like Dalrymple acquire an accented version of it during their long India stints. Dalrymple is touchy about his image and credentials on which his books on India sell — a scholarly author who does thorough research and presents several stories Indian that are not just factually sound, but also a pleasant read. So a line of questioning which challenges that or his perspective puts him off quickly. He brings out all sorts of toys and baubles to distract. But because he is too polite, all digression is part entertainment. He’ll quote long passages from his book, tells stories of British humorists, summon the cook to narrate the entire cooking process of Adraki Machchi, or simply disappear to obtain a book you have absolutely no interest in.

And because he is Delhi’s current white maharaja, in the Capital’s posh literary mafia circles you have to whisper that while his research, scale and ambition are all singular, impressive, you may find William Dalrymple’s writing dull.

In conversation with William Dalrymple about Nine Lives and other stuff

About the book

This book is emphatically not a sort of spiritual journey in search of a guru. It’s not one of those Westerner arrives in India, seeks ashram (laughs). It’s a fairly detached literary exercise in tracing how these nine completely different, diverse religious paths are coping with the new India…

Indian religion is a terribly difficult thing for a Westerner to write about. Because it is so full of potential minefields – minefields of cliché, minefields of prejudice, minefields of aspiration in the sense that each successive generation of Westerners seems to reflect onto India, India’s huge religious diversity, its own aspirations and prejudices… And trying to find a way through that and write about this subject without imposing myself on it was the thing that stopped me. I have written lots of articles, done a lot of travel through Jains, Buddhists, Hindu and Sufi sites, but I couldn’t quite find a way to coagulate, to join up until I got the offer to do the AIDS Sutra project. I was commissioned to write about devdasis… the obvious way to write that story was to write about one woman and her story – it wasn’t a unique literary discovery, but just by writing about one person, rather than an institutional group of people, by keeping myself out of it, not making it about my journey to them or my impressions of them, keeping 80 per cent of it in recorded speech seemed to be a way of avoiding imposing myself on the material and muddying it. So I revisited the Bauls about whom I had written at some length in 2003, revisited Jains, the Buddhist monks and in a sense reworked all the stories into stories of single individuals.

You said that writing about Hindu religion and spiritualism is a minefield of…

Not just Hindu. Any Indian religion. It’s no different… Take Buddhism. Every second-rate Hollywood actor seems to be on a dharmic-karmic path…

(Albinia screams. Dalrymple brings her wooden T-stand to which she’s chained and puts it next to him. “She quite moody… high maintenenace. You know the sort (scratched her neck). Once she’s being pleasured she’s happy”. Laughs.)

And yet, if somebody was looking at India as a spiritual place these are the sort of clichés that…

I didn’t say India was a spiritual place at all. My neighbours in Punjabi Delhi are the most rampantly materialistic people (laughs). And I was very keen to avoid all those clichés. I don’t believe India is a particularly spiritual place at all. There are terrible rogues, wild philanderers (laughs) and, particularly in Delhi, brutish materialists. That said, (Albinia, feeling neglected, screams again, Dalrymple resumes scratching her)… Look at the life of the Buddha – he decided to go out in reaction to the materialism and sensuality of his court. So I think, India has always produced the spiritual in reaction to the vile, the materialistic, the ruthless, all of which are here too. And, perhaps, the extremes of Indian venality produced the extremes of India’s spirituality…

So when you started, where there only nine or…

No there were many, many and nine really was a title that came at the end when it emerged that there were nine good ones. Some of the best stories never quite came through for a variety of reasons — one particular one was about a middle class Kashmiri whose aunt had been raped by CRPF jawans and who went off to the camps, trained, came back as a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, ran operations in the Valley for a while, was sickened by what he saw and ended up being a Sufi by the side of the Dal Lake…

You have said in the introduction that the interviews for the book were done in eight languages. So for each story you had a translator.

Yes… I find that often people like Hari Das, the prison warder, spoke incredibly poetically, and with far greater articulacy than you would imagine from semi-educated dancers. I went out of my way to find really good translators. Unless you have a translator who is fabulously fluent in the language, you miss a lot. I was very lucky – Mimlu Sen, who wrote Baulsphere, she was my translator for both the Bengali stories and she has a beautifully (stretches the word) poetic way of translating Baul, Baulary… the two most important things really were to find the right interviewees and the right translators. No one is gonna know Tibetan, Kannada, Malyalam, Bengali… all the languages. (Albinia screeches again “She’s spoilt”, Dalrymple says and scratches her neck. Albinia shuts her eyes, tilts her head. “She’s the most flirtatious girl…”)

Do you feel uncomfortable writing about someone like Mohan Bopa who is carrying on an oral tradition because you don’t know the language?  

No, I mean, I am permanently in a state of befuddlement by this country and that is what has kept me here. The moment I begin to understand anything about India I might leave it (laughs)… Like you, I’m someone who is used to taking a notebook and going out talking to strangers. Did you feel uncomfortable coming here today? No. That’s what you do every day.  In the same way, since I was 19, I have been taking my notebook and talking to people…

But I would feel odd if I was writing about something I didn’t understand.

But in each case I was with an interpreter. In the case of Mohan Bopa I had a very close friend called Prakash Pandit… I have known him for 15 years and he knows Rajasthan deeply, intimately. He was with me every inch of the way, and he’s known Mohan for 15 years too. It’s only by having  people like that around… I would have felt completely at sea if I had not had someone like that, as I did at each stage… When you are dealing with a book which is all-India, you can’t be a specialist in all the languages, you need help. And who you get help from is half the battle. (Albinia screams)

You’ve talked of how all these nine lives are at a stage when they are undergoing change…

India is undergoing change. Some of these devotional paths are flourishing. Such as Bauls… every time you go to the Kenduli Mela it’s double the number of Bauls there… it makes Glastonbury look like a Rotary Club dinner (laughs). And you have all these guys singing and dancing all night. Smoking ganja and drinking Old Monk. Disgusting Old Monk. There’s a PhD to be done on the link between Old Monk and Bengali poetry (laughs at the thought).

There is a lot of caste in your…

I think caste is still an important part of society. Less so in cities than in the villages. I had no idea there was a caste element… I don’t go looking for it. I mean, I had no idea that Theyyam had anything to do with caste until I went down… I had no idea that it was a carnival, a sort of inversion of society in which the dalits became Gods… that was a complete revelation.

What’s your process of writing after you have done your reporting. Do you go away somewhere…

I go to a pool here (points in its direction)… and the point about it is that it is beyond the wireless Internet in the house (laughs)… because I am not disciplined enough to do it, I find myself on Facebook or pissing around on the BBC site, or googling some stupid thing… the first and most important rule of modern writing is turn off the Internet somehow, or get beyond its reach.

And what I do, what I have done with the last two books, it’s like Chinese cooking — you spend a lot of time gathering the material. You get it all in order, all prepared, accessible, all transcriptions done… and then you close down. You stop going out. You get up early. You go on a diet… I quite become a brahmachari. You really focus, focus hard. You do nothing else. Work from dawn till dusk… And in terms of actual writing, this I time I wrote it quicker than other books.

How long…

Five months.

How early do you get up when you are writing.

I get up at 6, I swim and get to work. Work continues till the night, till I’m a complete vegetable. And for some reason I find that the most resuscitating thing after a day living with fakirs or tantriks or Bauls is a really old-fashioned BBC docudrama involving Jane Austen and white bodice and stage coaches and handsome men called Mr Darcy. We sit veging out, having tele-supper at the end of it with Jane Austen (laughs).

And what is your diet like.

I go vegetarian. Lots of Gazpacho for lunch, cold yogurt soups. It’s a purifying thing. If I could, I won’t drink. But I’m too much of an alcoholic. I drink Perno.

While you were doing the interviews, did you have to fight Western notions about these people, or were you already there.

Difficult question to answer. It’s all interviewing people. And, I have lived here 25 years, I’m not exactly fresh off the plane (laughs). You know. Give me a break. (Speaks in a loud comic voice) Do you really have maharajas in India? (laughs). My kids have all been brought up here and when they go home the question is, do you go to school on an elephant?

Is that really a question?

Oh yes, it is. It is quite a regular question.

While writing, are you, sort of, because Indians are very sensitive…

Nooooo (comic voice again). Nooooo. You can’t be serious.

How much do you edit yourself. How much do you censor yourself.

I edit a huge amount, but I don’t censor myself. The word fucking is fucking in this book (laughs). (Albinia screams)

We are okay with fucking.

(Laughs loudly) I tell you. You don’t get to be 2 billion or something… (Albinia screams)

What’s next?

If this book is a success I would love to write a sequel. Otherwise, I’ll have to spend another five years reading urdu and Persian manuscripts… I’ve got more Mughals. Auragzeb. He’s a very interesting, more complex character. Aurangzeb’s letters are fantastic. And he was self-aware. He knew he had fucked up in the end. He really did.