The Don of Delhi

Article00 Karan Mahajan in Bookforum:

The writer William Dalrymple lives in a farmhouse on the outskirts of New Delhi with his wife, their three children, four incestuous goats, a cockatiel, and the usual entourage of servants that attends any successful man in India's capital city. The previous resident of the house, a British journalist, was driven from the country by death threats after he published an article in Time magazine outing the previous Indian prime minister's bladder problems and habit of nodding off during meetings. Dalrymple is also British—Scottish, to be exact—but his controversial statements are more likely to concern the country's Mughal or British past. He is today India's most famous narrative historian.

A number of modern British writers—including Geoff Dyer, Patrick French, and the late Bruce Chatwin—have been fascinated by the land that their ancestors once ruled, but Dalrymple is unique, in the past twenty years, for how rigorously he has pursued that fascination, writing one brilliant travel book (City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi), two vivid histories (White Mughals and The Last Mughal), and one anthology of acute journalism (The Age of Kali) about South Asia. He came to India before it had achieved its status as a frontier boomland for computer programmers and writers alike, and he has lived there, on and off, since 1989. As a result, at the age of forty-five, he has become something of a godfather to a generation of writers who are producing nonfiction about the country. The fact that Dalrymple looks like a sunnier version of the actor James Gandolfini and loves to party no doubt helps with this reputation.

Dalrymple is also an important example of what a foreigner can bring to the table at a time when more and more of the writing about India is being produced by Indians themselves—which is to say: an unabashed eye for the exotic. This is not backhanded praise. India's best nonfiction writers are understandably taken up with the messiness and seaminess of the present, while readers find themselves cut off from religious and ethnic traditions by the distractions of big cities. Dalrymple has stepped into this void and punched out riveting, accessible histories of the Mughal era and studies of disappearing mystical practices. His fluent and moving presentations of big subjects—India's first war of independence in The Last Mughal (2006), for example—sometimes irritate native historians who feel they have been scooped by a powerful foreign interest, but this is a little unfair: There is only one Dalrymple, and there are many Indians. Instead of capitalizing on their native credibility, Indian historians have either lost themselves in a thicket of doublespeak about subalterns or have taken one look at the publishing industry in India, which pays handsomely for Booker Prize–nominated novels and zilch for popular histories, and given up on trying to communicate with the general public (Ramachandra Guha and Gurcharan Das remain exceptions). Dalrymple's success has shown that there is a market for well-written history in India. This is itself an achievement.