William Dalrymple's love affair with India | Connect Asia

William Dalrymple's love affair with India

William Dalrymple's love affair with India

Updated 18 January 2012, 18:10 AEDT

For a quarter of a century British-born author William Dalrymple has observed, engaged with and written about India.

Traditionally Indians haven't been keen on seeing and hearing hard truths. But William Dalrymple's work is making audiences across the country sit up and take it on the chin.William Dalrymple will be a guest author at this week's Sydney Writer's Festival.

Presenter: India correspondent Nidhi Dutt

Speaker: British author William Dalrymple

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: The greatest moments of my life have been in this country. It's provided an endless source of interest, peace, fascination, beauty. The most intense moments of my life have been here. Whether it's been screaming fury [laughs] or whether it is the intense love for this country that you get when everything's going right.

NIDHI DUTT: For twenty-five years British born author and historian William Dalrymple has called India home.

About two decades ago he published his first book, the "City of Djinns", a history-come-travel book about Delhi.

Since then he's watched the city evolve, develop and in parts even disappear. Hidden, covered or obscured from view by a new layer of modernity.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: What's certainly true is that the Delhi "City of Djinns" as a whole doesn't exist. When I wrote that book Delhi was a city of maybe four or three million people, most of whom were Punjabi refugees from partition who'd come here having been thrown out of Pakistan.

NIDHI DUTT: Today Delhi's completely transformed. As well as being a city of six million people in its core it's got two satellites, Noida and Gurgaon, both of which are the size of Scotland in themselves. There's four or five million people in each of those. And it's a huge, big, Indian capital now.

From the relics of Old Delhi, the jewel of the Mughal empire; to Afghanistan, the region's formidable and unconquerable battlefield, the Subcontinent has captivated the hearts and minds of writers and historians for ions.

But William says the India of today is far beyond the land of mystical rapture that many foreigners still consider it to be.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: My Punjabi neighbours in Delhi are some of the most brutally materialistic people I've come across anywhere in the world ever. Labels, public display and this is the centre piece of their lives. So I think first of all it's important to cut the hippy stuff about India being this sort of mystic trance area. India is an extremely forward looking, materialistic, hard-nosed country in many ways.

NIDHI DUTT: Authors - foreign and Indian alike - have written extensively about multiplexes, malls, Maruti cars and the yawning divide between the country's rich and poor.

And while most of "Incredible India's" gloss and glamour has been accounted for, you seldom hear about the way in which the rise of "modern" India is affecting rural and remote parts of the country.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: What I've been interested in is that area caught between tradition and modernity which is quite a lot of the country where you have these small towns where they're not on the edge of a headquarters of Google Asia or Microsoft Asia but nonetheless they have their own traditions being threatened and being in some way encircled by this. What's happening? What does it mean to be a holy man today wondering the roads of India with those Tata trucks thundering past them?

NIDHI DUTT: William Dalrymple's latest book "Nine Lives" is, as the title suggests, a book about nine individuals; nine different religious convictions; and nine different spiritual quests.

Critics say it's a real, passionate, and at times brutal account of the role that religion still plays in a country undergoing rapid socio-cultural change.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: I totally anticipated it being a bit of a tough sell here because for the very simple reason that Indians hate being stereotyped. For years they've been told they're a country of elephants, maharajah's and they're sick to the back teeth of that. They now want to get on and tell their own stories. I'd say when and the kind of stereotype of India that foreigners write about either poverty or maharajah's and holy men. I thought this book would have a similar fate that people would think it was about holy men. At least it's got no maharajah's in it and not a lot of poverty, but it has holy men [laughs].

NIDHI DUTT: And these holy men are accompanying William to this year's Sydney Writer's Festival.

He's going on tour with the "real life" characters of his latest book, a unique way of showcasing the India William's come to discover over the past twenty-five years.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: We've got some bauls, bauls in Bengali just means madmen. We've got some fakhirs from Pakistan. We've got the prison warder who's God for three months of the year. We're going around the world in a bus with this lot so it's spinal tap meets the Khumbh Mela.

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