William Dalrymple On The Unceasing Wonders Of Delhi & What Goes Behind His Writing

Delhi—the bustling metropolis, the city dotted with historic remains, the urban jungle and the place, more often than not, synonymous with twisted bylanes. Everything exists, intertwined together, the chowks and the nouveau sometimes visibly overlapping and at other times, on their own. But Delhi, once home to the greats like Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Amrita Pritam and countless others before and after them, razed to the ground by multiple dynasties and then rebuilt by others, is something else. It tosses and turns and thrives, lets you down and leaves you euphoric. And get this—it changes and yet, remains the same. 

I thought it was okay when I first moved to the city some four years ago, fresh out of college. And then as most cliches go, I read City of Djinns, a book written a few years before I was born. It was transfixing and true, like looking at Dilli through a completely new lens and yet with a feeling that could only be described as familiarity. What would be better than hearing all about it from William Dalrymple himself—historian, author, speaker and as his Instagram bio goes, “Goatherd, Kabooter baz and general badfaroosh.” 

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he holds the position of co-director, his popularity knows no bounds. His schedule is packed as are his sessions, and when one of them gets postponed for the next day because he's feeling a bit under the weather, a lady sitting next to me remarks in a matter-of-fact way, “You know, William doesn’t do anything half-heartedly.” 

Catching up in the final minutes of the festival where he was still on his toes and nursing a bad throat, I had to agree. We talked about writing, how his extensive research goes about and Delhi, which has been home for years now. 

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The Mehrauli Jharna during the Monsoon Delhi, 1815

A post shared by William Dalrymple (@williamdalrymple) on

Luxeva: In the City of Djinns, you write that when you first arrived in Delhi in 1984, you were “almost completely untravelled”. Since then, you have lived there and written extensively about it. Do you feel that the city has shaped you?

William Dalrymple: “Definitely, one hundred percent. I am a completely different person from the one who arrived there at the age of 18. Much of that has to do not just with Delhi but India as a whole. Had I stayed in Britain and had a different career, I would have been a completely different person.”

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
INR 320 at Amazon

Luxeva: You also go on to mention that years later from when it was written, City of Djinns “records a city that no longer exists.” How would you describe the Delhi that was and the Delhi that is?

William Dalrymple: “Well, the Delhi I lived in was about a million people and now if you look at it, it's more than 25 million! It’s a large, polluted megacity whereas before it was a small, sarkari administrative centre. All the action in those days was divided; cultural action was in Calcutta [Kolkata], society in Bombay [Mumbai]. Now, Delhi has moved on from being similar to Washington to being closer to New York. It's very happening—there are the publishing and journalism industries and book launches and thriving art circles; no one needs to go to Calcutta anymore for culture or to Bombay for the glitzy society. That, and everything I loved about Delhi in the old days is pretty much still there.”

Luxeva: It’s safe to say you have numerous fond memories of the city then. 

William Dalrymple: “Oh, I've got so many of those. That first discovery of Nizamuddin, Old Delhi, the Kabootars, the Sufis and the poets. And just the beauty of the city. There’s still Lutyens’ Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb and so much more. It's still fascinating and still incredibly beautiful.”

Luxeva: Most of your work has a historical context that requires precision. What’s your research process like to ensure that it is not distorted? 

William Dalrymple: “If I describe writing The Anarchy, it was a five-year project. As a writer, you start by looking at secondary sources, followed by where the primary sources are located and then try to go and find them, dig in, and also search for new ones. In the case of The Anarchy, a number of places were looked at; Tonk in Rajasthan, Patna, Rampur or the National Art Gallery in Delhi. Then comes the process of putting it together—writing a couple of pages with every date, event, and quote, giving reference to sources for each of them. Any major event like the Battle of Plassey, which is a great deal in the book, will take up to even 10 pages. I also have a barrage of card indexes—one for the British names, one for the Indian names, others for places, topics, professions, military strategy and so on. It's a very slow and painstaking process and can be frustrating, but the crucial thing is when I have to begin to write, everything is ready. And if one can write quickly and at speed, having already gotten material at their fingertips, it means that there will be a momentum from one event to the other that'll project itself to the reader. It doesn’t sit. If you write in a sluggardly fashion and lose track, it means it will read that way to the reader.”

Luxeva: And would that be a bit of advice for aspiring writers as well? 

William Dalrymple: “There are many ways to write anything but that’s what I find useful and I learnt it from people like Antony Beevor. You learn to do it your way, just like how you make a kite fly or ride a bicycle.”

Luxeva: What’s on your reading list these days? 

Wiliam Dalrymple: “I am now looking around for sources for the next book and also trying to consider things. Having written four books on the East India Company, I might do something completely crazy and write about Ancient India. So, I have got a huge pile of books on Buddhism, the spread of Hinduism, some about south east Asia, Buddhism in Afghanistan and that whole early period, while wondering whether I would be nuts to try and do something completely different.”

Image Courtesy: Jailpur Lit Fest on Instagram
Image Courtesy: Jailpur Lit Fest on Instagram

Luxeva: You just wrapped up the 13th edition of the Jaipur Literature Fest, of which you are also the co-director. How was the experience this year?

William Dalrymple: “Completely f*ck*ng exhausting! But exhilarating; it's been wonderful, with all sorts of writers I’ve been trying to get here, particularly two—Simon Schama, who is a great writer and a guru for me and also Stephen Greenblatt, who I’ve been trying to get to attend for about eight years. These are two particular heroes of mine, so a true feat.” 

Luxeva: So you would term it a success?

William Dalrymple: “Oh yes. Sometimes, you know, you are in the middle of something (it has been around since 2006) and everyone sort of starts taking it for granted but the reality is that this is the biggest book fest in the world. It's not very easy, particularly after 13 years, but JLF is a huge Indian success story, a demonstration of India’s soft power. There are not numerous different areas where people from all over the world come here to study what’s done in India. When you have something like that, it's very irritating to have some moron—you can quote me on that with great pleasure—saying there are no writers in the Jaipur Literature Festival, when in reality, nowhere else can you get so many great writers and Nobel Prize winners together, not in the volume we pull them in year after year. It's a mega-event.” 

Featured Image: William Dalrymple on Instagram

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