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Tuesday June 28, 2022

‘Virginia Woolf is Part Bengali’ – William Dalrymple

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William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple talks in detail about his Bengali ancestors and why the right wing politics of the Indian sub-continent scares liberals like him in the West over a zoom interview with Showli Chakraborty.

‘These are the last days of the Americans…next it will be China’

Thus read the concluding lines of William Dalrymple’s 2013 book Return of a King. For a historian, writer and political observer like Dalrymple politics of the Indian sub-continent has always been a fascinating subject to explore. However, of late the writer seems a little apprehensive about the condition of democracy in this part of the world. In an exclusive interview to The Space.Ink over a Zoom call, he talks about his apprehensions about the rise and rise of extremism across the globe!

What has your experience been like at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival?

It was very delightful, in fact I love Kolkata and everything related to Kolkata. It is one of my favourite cities and I am always glad to be a part of anything that comes from this city. I love interacting with Bengalis in general, though I do miss being present physically at the literary fests in Kolkata. Writing is a lonely process and it is always good for a writer to go out and meet his readers, talk to them, take a walk along Victoria Memorial and Botanical Gardens. I love hanging around in Kolkata. But since it was online I missed all of that and I am hoping we can get back to physical lit fests all over again!

What kind of an impact does a literary festival have on you as a writer?

I played an important role in bringing the literary festival to India along with my colleagues Namita and Sanjoy. It is the sign of a vibrant life, it is a sign that people are taking literature seriously. Periods of history where literature is celebrated are the times of great cultural achievements for any civilization. A writer’s life does seem very lonely and it is at events like these that a writer is made aware that he is not writing into a void. It is fun signing books and meeting people and soaking it all in. It’s an ego boost and a lovely creative holiday. But the real writing takes place elsewhere. This is the time when I take a break from writing, not a time when I am planning the writing. 

You are also a globally celebrated photographer…..

That too is a break from my writing. What I photograph does not influence my writing. Rather sometimes I am taking pictures just for myself when I am travelling. These are the things that help me to engage in other things while I am between books. I am about to start my new book The Golden Road which is going to talk about how Indian scholars influenced the West and how the mathematics of India and China travelled all over the world. These days, when I do take a photograph I actually post a first rough draft on Instagram which is different from what people did earlier when you actually made a note in your diary. But that is the fun part. The writing is the grind, staring at a blank page. It is like going to the dentist and waiting for him to drill your teeth!

Tell us something about your great aunt Viginia Woolf, something that most people don’t know about….

I can share something about Virginia Woolf that no one knows much about— the fact that she was part Bengali. We both have Bengali ancestors and much like her I am half Bengali too. We have a mutual great grandmother who was born in Chandannagore. Virginia came from Franco-Bengali origins and we have the marriage certificate of her Bengali grandmother and a Frenchman in the family. Her grandmother was very aware of her Bengali and Hindu origin even when she was living abroad. 

"If you look at Virginia’s face, she has a very Bengali face" - Dalrymple.

They were seven sisters who were looked upon like Hindu exotica when they landed in London or even travelled to Paris with the kind of Indian jewellery they wore and the textile heritage that they introduced in the West. If you look at Virginia’s face, she has a very Bengali face. That is an Indian face. I am two generations down, so I have never really met her. But Virginia Woolf was quite a Bengali. She should be celebrated as a daughter of the soil just as Rabindranath Tagore is. Maybe someday I will write a book about the Bengali heritage of Virginia Woolf. Some of her works are very lyrical, especially her poems which are very influenced by Bengali literary styles of that era.  

Do you think people started taking a greater interest in reading about the history of the Indian sub-continent after you started writing about it?

I think people were taken aback by my approach to history in my books. I am a historian and everything I write about comes from the documents that I source while doing my research. I don’t believe in approaching history with a dry narrative. Rather I always encourage young writers into weaving the analysis into the narrative. I write narrative non-fiction and I add a biographical approach which gives agency to the characters. Most institutions in India have a very Marxist approach to history. They emphasise more on the social, cultural and political backdrop of an event in history. But they do not talk about individual characters in history and how they influenced the course of contemporary history.

william dalrymple books
I don’t believe in approaching history with a dry narrative.

That kind of writing actually makes it a very dry narrative and children learning about history in school are turned off the subject because of this. I do believe that innate quirks in the characters of people in power have influenced the course of history across the world. Had Netaji not been the person he was, would the INA have existed? If Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not the character he is, would the BJP have secured an absolute majority? Had Rahul Gandhi been a slightly stronger character, would that have led to the formation of a stronger Congress? The same goes for people like Robert Clive or Siraj-ud-daula. Their personalities have had an impact on contemporary historical events of that time. 

What’s your take on the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, given the fact that you have done such extensive work about the politics of Afghanistan in your book 'Return of A King'?

That book came out in 2013 and I wish what I said in the book didn’t come true. The rule of the Taliban is a huge tragedy for the people of Afghanistan, Indian influence in Afganistan, British influence in Afghanistan and for democracy as a whole. The Taliban is basically a group of Pashtun farmers who are ill-educated and totally unqualified to rule a country. The only country who stands to gain from this situation is China. Even Pakistan, which initially got a lot of military boost when the Taliban took over the government, is slowly beginning to regret its decision.

Had Netaji not been the person he was, would the INA have existed? If Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not the character he is, would the BJP have secured an absolute majority? Had Rahul Gandhi been a slightly stronger character, would that have led to the formation of a stronger Congress? The same goes for people like Robert Clive or Siraj-ud-daula. Their personalities have had an impact on contemporary historical events of that time.

Afghans are a tribal society and I am quite sure this government will not last for more than two years maximum. I was surprised at the speed of the collapse of the state. It is going to be a very long time with several civil wars engulfing the nation, till the time democracy may make a comeback here. But that is not happening any time soon.

As far as India is concerned, what kind of an impression does a right wing extremist government like the BJP make among political observers like you in the West?

I am neither a fan of the BJP nor Narendra Modi and his ilk. But let me clarify that as a British citizen looking at India from the outside, I do respect the democratic system of India. However, the government has not been a good one for the Indian economy. One wonders when the Congress is such a mess, Indians really don’t have much of an alternative. But right wing populist politicians are on the rise not just in India but across the world. For example Brazil, America, Tories in Britain. I am not a Marxist or a Leftist. I am a Centrist, a liberal. And I look at such leaders with horror. In many countries the liberals seem to be losing ground as right wingers gain. This is a situation that draws parallel to what happened in Spain, Italy and Germany in the 1930s. I read books from that era to figure out why this is happening now. But I am frightened of people like Adityanath Yogi and his ilk in India. Who knows what happens next!

All views and opinion expressed by William Dalrymple are his own. Thespace.ink does not endorse or negate any of it. 

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Amazon

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2 Responses

  1. Since the native hindoos are unable to take care of the country, perhaps Lord Dalrymple can take over from where Lord Mountbatten left and before the native hindoos turn completely fascist nazis, Lord Dalrymple can rejuvenate the Congress again and help Rajiv Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra and their off springs become the Prime Minsters for the next 50 years in a truly secular government that is supposed to be not involved in religion, yet has different rules for different religions.

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