Friday, October 14, 2011

William Dalrymple: the 'White Mughal' of the Literary World

A Literary White Mughal:
An exclusive interview with William Dalrymple
Laaleen Khan

With an array of fascinating books and numerous awards to his credit, it’s no surprise that William Dalrymple is esteemed as one of today’s finest historical writers. From The City of Djinns to The Age of Kali, The Last Mughal and his latest, Nine Lives, Dalrymple’s compelling work reflects his love of, and affinity with, the historical heritage of South Asia. A veritable Indophile, this modern day, literary ‘White Mughal’ shares insightful details including the upcoming film adaptation of his bestselling White Mughals:

How does a Scottish born writer immerse himself into the Indo-Pak subcontinent’s past and write with such in-depth authenticity?
There’s no secret. It’s the time you spend in a place. After 25 years, South Asia still fascinates me and provides endless inspiration. I’m here because I love it. I’ve spent my adult life traveling between South Asia, Britain and the Middle East and Central Asia, but its South Asia that remains my base and my focus (he wrote In Xanadu as a Cambridge student after following Marco Polo’s legendary trail).

You have worked on several notable documentaries (including Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam featuring Rahat Fateh Ali and Abida Parveen); how different was it as a medium to writing?
Books are my main bread and butter, and are the real monuments you leave behind you; but it’s lovely to dabble in other things between books. Writing history books is usually a four-year project.  TV and radio make a good break between more serious things.  With TV documentaries, the director does half the work, so I’m not the boss, and as a writer, researcher and presenter, I can take it relatively easy.

Your work has recurring themes, from the British Raj to mysticism. In retrospect, which did you find most challenging to research and write?
My books break down into travel books, where I go on journeys and interview people, and history books, where I spend time most of the times with manuscripts in the library. It’s exciting to research both, but in different ways. With travel books you have the pleasure of the open road. With history books you’re following a trail like a detective.  TV and travel journalism make a lovely change between the big projects, but they are much less substantial than books.

Fans of your books are thrilled that White Mughals (published in 2003) will finally be turned into a movie. What’s your involvement with the project in terms of screenplay adaptation, casting choices, and location settings?
This the third time that the rights have been sold! The first time, the BBC bought and sat on it.  After that, the Oscar winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton got involved” (according to Bollywood reports, Shekhar Kapur and Aamir Khan made unsuccessful bids in the past). Now, Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort) is attached as its director and probable star. He’s a friend. Coriolanus, which he starred in, is his directorial debut and has had fabulous reviews. I’ll be acting as an advisor on the project, but I won’t be screenwriting.

Ralph Fiennes would make an ideal James Achilles Kirkpatrick (the protagonist). How would you ideally cast Khair un Nissa (the female lead)?
I’d love Frieda Pinto to do it. The film would have to downplay Khair un Nissa’s youth. She was, in reality, 14, which was the usual age of marriage in those days, and wasn’t an issue then (in the 18th century) but it would be very controversial today.  What was controversial then was that she married a white Christian, something that would be less controversial today.

Are there any plans to shoot scenes in Old Lahore? What things ought to be done to tempt location scouts here to Pakistan?
In general, people regard Pakistan as too dangerous to shoot. Mira Nair is shooting her Pakistan scenes in India for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I have no problems with visiting Pakistan at all. I still come and go. I stayed with Mohsin Hamid in Lahore while researching my forthcoming Afghan book (The Return of a King: Shah Shuja, the Great Game and the First Battle for Afghanistan). I researched the archives at the Punjab Secretariat in Lahore and found wonderful material on the Koh-i-Noor, Ranjit Singh and the Afghan War. The staff there were very competent and helpful, especially Abbas, the director.

What parts of the world inspire you; where will you go next?
South Asia, where I live, inspires me.  But I have vague ideas in the future for the history books set the Caribbean and Scotland.

How long have you lived in Delhi?
I have been here for 25 years with my wife (artist Olivia Fraser) and three children. We return to London and Scotland for a break in June and July.

What are your current projects, in addition to writing?
I’ve written one third of the Afghan book. In February, I’ll be co-curating an exhibition of Late Mughal Art, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi for the Asia Society in New York and attending the Karachi Literary Festival. And I’m working on my health. I lost 10 kg on the Dukan diet in three weeks. I now eat only fish and chicken. No alcohol, chawal or naan!
(Interviewed via telephone from New Delhi)

Screen adaptations of books set in the exotic, romanticized era of the British Raj explored inter-racial identities amid turbulent political change

Bhowani Junction
This 1956 Hollywood epic, adapted from John Masters’ saga of a Partition-era love triangle—between Anglo-Indian WWII Nurse Victoria Jones, Anglo-Indian Patrick Taylor, and dashing Col. Rodney Savage—was memorably shot at Lahore’s Shah Alam Gate aka today’s boisterous ‘Shahalmi’ market.

A Passage To India
E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic was adapted to an Oscar nominated David Lean film exploring the unlikely friendship and eventual mistrust between a trio of Britons headed for India and their fellow traveler, Dr. Aziz, personifying uneasy relations between the two cultures.

The Far Pavilions
HBO’s first TV series was adapted from M.M. Kaye’s 1978 novel of forbidden romance between the Indian-raised Ashton ‘Ashok’ Pelham-Martyn and the Indo-Russian Princess Anjuli, against the backdrop of British-Russian colonial rivalry and the Second Afghan War.

The Jewel in the Crown
The first novel of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet explores the tragic love story of Daphne Manners and English-educated Hari Kumar, vilified and tortured by police officer Ronald Merrick, demonstrating racial prejudices in British Colonial India to a western audience.

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