William Dalrymple is the author of seven acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; The Age of Kali, which won the French Prix D’Astrolable; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize and The Crossword Prize for Non Fiction. He divides his time between New Delhi and London and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New Statesman and The Guardian.
-BOOK LAUNCH: Scent in the Islamic Garden by Ali Akbar Husain
-INDUS JOURNEYS: In Conversation with William Dalrymple
-AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN: Conflict, Extremism and the Taliban
First of all, a warm welcome to Karachi! How do you like it so far? Have you been looking forward to meeting anyone in particular at the Karachi Literature Festival?
I love coming to Karachi; I’m a regular visitor. I usually come here about once every year actually. The frustration this time is I’m in the middle of a book, and while I’d normally come for say about a week or so, this time I’ll just have to do my bit at the festival and leave for Delhi tomorrow. That’s less than two days and not enough time to really enjoy.
You gave us some incredible teasers from your next book about Afghanistan this morning in your keynote speech that kicked off the festival. Tell me, how soon will we be able to get our hands on it?
It’ll be out In the Fall, around September. I’m desperate to finish the book right now. I think it will be titled: “The Return of a King: Shah Shuja and the West’s first catastrophe in Afghanistan.”
It’s rather intriguing for us to see you; a British man who’s so enthusiastic about this region and has so much knowledge and continues to write about it. Very bluntly, why this fascination with South Asia?
I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say my job is to tell you guys about your own country. I’m flattered that you do read what I write, and of course it’s very nice and flattering for me. I’d be worried if I was writing about this part of the world and no one took it seriously! Still, I don’t think I’m primarily writing for South Asia, although increasingly I think you’re right, a large part of my audience is here, strangely. I’m just glad to be here and luckily every one of my books has won a major literary award. Some have won two and some have won three. They’ve all been successful; they’ve all been bestsellers. Occasionally I see a sniffy review, but my career hasn’t yet nosedived.
So how important are awards and prizes to an author like yourself, especially at this stage in your career?
Personally, I really, really like winning prizes! There are many ways of judging the success of a book – one is word of mouth, people telling you they like it; one is sales; another is prizes. It’s a terrific boost to the writer’s ego to keep winning prizes like I have. And I personally find it a great help and encouragement. Other writers I know regard it a lottery–and indeed it is a lottery. The book most people consider my best book is “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium”. Other books which perhaps will stand the test of time less well, won lovely prizes as well. There is always the element of the dice throw. I usually get the double six or I get the two-ones!
Speaking of India and Pakistan and the constant tension there’s been between the two countries since partition, do you look forward to a project where you would perhaps dissect the anatomy of this conflict and try to decipher this unending animosity?
I’ve already written extensively about the biggest issue of this part of the world. The weird part is, I have to say, its’ still less of a journey to fly from Delhi to Lahore, than it is to fly from Delhi to Madras. There’s a far bigger cultural-break to fly to South India, than it is to fly across the border! The cultures are still very similar. In an American university, put a Pakistani guy next to an Indian girl in lodgings, and they’ll be busy cooking at each other’s houses, watching cricket together. It’s only the politics and the militaries of both countries that create the enmity.
I would think there’s every reason to hope at some stage people can envisage SAARC, for example, turning into some sort of EU style body whereby you’d have separate countries but borders would be open for people to move around openly. The reality is that India is growing very fast; last year, the Indian economy grew by the size of the entire Pakistan economy! Pakistan is in the same situation as my country, Scotland, being attached to a far bigger nation. I think Scots did the right thing to unite in the UK with England, and in many ways took it over. The last three prime ministers have all got Scottish surnames! We’re essentially a nation of 5 million, with 50 million English people. And I think we did extremely well by that decision.
That’s an interesting way to look at it, but I’m sure a lot of politicians on both sides would lose their marbles at the very thought!
I’m just saying this could be a possibility for you too. The final decision, obviously, is for you guys to take!
Coming back to festivals and literature: Any comments on the whole chain of incidents that led to Salam Rushdie’s pull-out at Jaipur this year? Do you think pulling him out when you did was the right call or are there any regret?
No, I don’t regret the decision at all. We had him on video and he was a complete star, charmed everyone with his talk. What I do regret is announcing his name; we should have just kept it quiet. But then, he had specifically asked be announced. Instead of agreeing, I should have said: “Salman, it’s election time – it’s best if we don’t” We didn’t do that, and that was a major error.
As co-director of the giant Jaipur Literature Festival, how would you compare it, growth wise, with the Karachi Literature Festival?
Well, you’re a lot bigger than we were in our third year. In our third year we were still under 1000 people, and I’d guess there are at least 5000 here today, and that’s a good sign. We’ve had a strange growth curve at Jaipur over the last couple of years—we had 120,000 people attend this year and numbers keep doubling.
Now that you’re acquainted with the festival, can we in the coming years expect you to offer your help and expertise to the organizers here?
I wouldn’t know about that. They seem to be doing quite well for themselves… I see they’re quite capable of running their own show!
There is now this whole cluster of festivals that have grown around Jaipur – like Hyderabad and Karachi. This happens in many parts of the world. For example the Auckland festival in New Zealand happens just before Sydney. Then there’s one that happens in Brisbane right after. So writers who have bothered to go to Australia can get to three festivals and the organizers sometimes share their air fare. Maybe we will do something like that as well.
The last few years have witnessed the birth of many Pakistani authors in both fiction and non-fiction. Any word of advice to people looking forward to building a career out of it in a country like ours, in times like these?
I think it’s possible to be a writer in this part of the world and make a living the way it wasn’t 10 or 15 years ago. A best seller could sell 15-20,000 copies here and 50- 60000 in India, and that’s enough to make a living. It’s not impossible now to be brave enough to say: “I’m going to give it a go!” So, if you feel it’s what you want to do, try it out! It may be that chartered accountancy is your thing! But if you can do it, it can be done!