When did your fascination with India begin?
Knowing nothing about India and with very little interest, I ended up there by total accident, aged 18. I was in a state of total confusion for about a week and then fell rather hopelessly in love with it and it’s a relationship that has continued until this day.
What changes have you seen in India over the years?
It has been very nice watching India change because all the things that I love most like Kabootar Bazi [the tradition of pigeon flying] in the city, the Sufi shrines, the Sadhus, the old gentlemen in their frock coats, the Qawwalis – all that stuff is still there. But there are now fantastic multiplex cinemas, good delicatessens, places where you can get cheese and decent-ish wine – it’s like an extra ring to the tree.
For people who have never been to India, what should they see or do?
India is a huge country that is really more like a continent and it’s like saying what would you go and see in Europe because the Himalayas are as different from Kerala as the Norwegian fjords are from the Spanish Steps. There are only three areas of India that have been intensively explored by foreign tourists – Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa. Anywhere else, you are more or less on your own. I love to explore other areas like the Champa Valley and Dharamsala, Andhra and Uttar Pradesh – places that are full of the most amazing ruins. Often you don’t get the posh, boutique-y hotels but the payback is that you are the only person wandering around the temples and there is a far fresher hospitality in the people there than the slightly jaded hoteliers of Jaipur and Jodhpur.
Did anything good come out of the British rule?
When the British came, India was the richest country in the world. When we left in 1947, we left a third world country – terrible famines and India was in a bit of a mess. It had nice railways and roads and courts of law but it was a very poor country indeed. What it did was take away India’s self confidence in its own culture. So you have this strange mix in India today of, on one hand, a touchy belligerence about Hindu culture and, on the other, a lack of interest in the past – many Indians will say they’re they are only concentrating on the future. On the plus side, it did create a united India.
My next book is called The Anarchy and it’s a prequel to White Mughals. It’s about the early Brits – the 60 years between 1739 and 1803. It’s about the rape, plunder and how the Mughals lost it to the Brits. It’s going to take a while – it’s going to be a big one.
William Dalrymple was talking to Selma Day, editor of The Mayfair Times.