Commercial warfare

Well-travelled Jaipur Literature Festival co-director William Dalrymple knows how to tell a great story himself

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 3:22pm

Award-winning writer, historian and Jaipur Literature Festival co-founder William Dalrymple's latest book, his ninth, is Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, an account of the British invasion of the country informed by multiple Afghan sources.

"Although I had never been in the country before 2009, it felt very familiar because I'd been reading about it, dealing with it as a journalist, circling it," Dalrymple says from his home on a farm outside New Delhi, where he spends nine months of the year.

The East India Company was an extraordinary thing and a very alarming beast. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear submarines
William Dalrymple 

"It was the East India Company invading Afghanistan - the First Afghan War - which is extraordinary because people talk about the British invading Afghanistan. It was a company. The East India Company was an extraordinary thing and a very alarming beast. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear submarines or Pepsi Cola with F16 jets.

"It was the East India Company that conquered India, not the British government. It was a company with shareholders, an office, with annual general meetings - all the things that a company had. But it also had the largest standing army in Asia. So this was a commercial enterprise, knocks down India, and then goes in for the kill in Afghanistan. Good story, I thought."

The research for Return of a King resulted in a number of adventures. "It was a very different thing from doing your usual research in the British Library in London and getting on the Tube. Some of it in 2009 was perfectly safe. Kabul felt really very safe. There was the odd attack, but you had to be very unlucky to get caught up in anything in Kabul in 2009. It's certainly more hairy now.

"I only got into real trouble in Kandahar. I got a sniper bullet in the back of my car as I was leaving the airport, having just arrived."

That was not his only brush with death while researching the book. "I nearly got shot going from the route of the retreat," he says. "We got stopped four-fifths of the way from the destination, Gandamak, where the British last stand was, and we had this amazing Afghan feast with the tribal chieftain I was travelling with. They put down carpets in an apricot grove, kebabs, mountains of rice, huge flaps of naan that looked like a tent. It went on for four hours and by the end it was clear we weren't going to get to the village we were trying to get to. It was too late.

"So we went back to Jalalabad by the main road to find when we got there that there had been a huge battle in Gandamak that morning. They had come out to burn the poppy crop. The villagers resisted. There was a firefight. Nine policemen were killed. Police vehicles were burned and several hostages taken. So had we arrived at five in the afternoon after our lunch, with gunmen and everything, we would have met a very hostile reception … It was only greed and the size of the meal that saved us."

Dalrymple knows how to tell a great story. He wrote his first book while studying at Cambridge - a travelogue called In Xanadu - which was published when he was in his early 20s and won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award. His most recent books have garnered international literary prizes.

Perhaps it was his first experience of travel and of India at the age of 18, during his gap year that best prepared him for his career as a writer and historian.

"I had a very sheltered childhood," he says. "I was a little Scots boy who went to school in the north Yorkshire moors, was fascinated by medieval history and was living in a very strange world. At the time it seemed to be modern, but my upbringing was, in a sense, late Edwardian. People around me still had governesses - the last death throes of Downton Abbey.

"So when I arrived in India, it was a complete surprise. It was like landing on a different planet. I was immediately intrigued, and within a month was in love … It was an unforgettable baptism into a completely different world and I wrote long diaries and letters and that I suppose was the basis of my travel writing."

In addition to publishing a book every three or four years, Dalrymple is a co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which next takes place on January 17-21. Last year, a quarter of a million people attended.

"When I was launching [the 2002 book] White Mughals 10 years ago, all around the world you'd meet Indian authors in New York and London at literary festivals," he says. "And then you go to India, and none of them were there. These are the people who were mediating India to the West - Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, great authors, fabulous writers all of them - but there was some sensation that they were all sitting in Brooklyn or Wiltshire and writing an imagined India of their childhood.

"The idea of the festival was partly to bring those guys back, to bring Indian writers out. Literary festivals were big already in England 10 years ago, but there was not a single one in India at that point. I wanted to showcase Indian talent, bring the world to India and bring India to the world. And it just kept doubling in size every year."

Since then, numerous other literary festivals have bloomed across Asia. "After the success of Jaipur there were I think 24 South Asian literary festivals at last count," he says. "Mumbai's got two, [Calcutta's] got three. There's one in Nepal. There's one in Bhutan. There's three in Pakistan. It's kicked something off. I think it's my little present back to India. Long after my books are gone, these things will probably carry on."