A Scotsman in India: William Dalrymple's Meticulously Researched Books Have Made Him One of the Most Popular Travel Writers of His Generation. as He Begins the Follow-Up to the Award-Winning White Mughals, He Talks to Christian Amodeo about Islam, India and International Politics

By Amodeo, Christian | Geographical, November 2003 | Go to article overview

A Scotsman in India: William Dalrymple's Meticulously Researched Books Have Made Him One of the Most Popular Travel Writers of His Generation. as He Begins the Follow-Up to the Award-Winning White Mughals, He Talks to Christian Amodeo about Islam, India and International Politics


Amodeo, Christian, Geographical


"Unless the context is understood you are never going to win the war on terrorism because the only thing protecting the West is the goodwill of the Islamic world," says William Dalrymple matter-of-factly. After 17 years of writing about what he calls his "patch"--the large swathe of land between Istanbul and Calcutta--he has found his niche subject is now a global hot potato and he's telling it how he sees it.

Few would argue with the 37-year-old Scot, whose eminently readable works have established his reputation as one of the best travel writers of his generation. His success has made him synonymous with expertise in Islam and India. There may well be bigger selling travel authors, but few are as well regarded or as consistently good as Dalrymple.

"At no point in history has there been more need for proper understanding and scholarship of the Islamic world than now," he says. "Never in my life have I come across a subject about which there is such misinformation, such total incomprehension and such a lack of will to try to understand." He says that he wouldn't have particularly objected to a campaign to remove Saddam Hussein. "But anyone who knows about the region could see the reasons we were given were wrong," he says. "One thing that is absolutely clear is that [Iraqi had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, which flourished thanks to money from Saudi Arabia." He finds the situation frustrating on a daily basis. Not without humour, he blames the "self-appointed pundits, who are awesomely ignorant" for the delay in finishing his latest book, published last year. "White Mughals was delayed six months because I was writing letters to newspapers and sort of 'harumphing' around," he says.

White Mughals, his fifth book, is an ambitious historical novel that turns a revisionist spotlight on what he calls "a forgotten period of history"--the century between the 1730s and 1830s. "It was a time when the British in India did not behave like the British were meant to behave," he says. "They adopted Indian customs and sympathised with Indian culture, and a third of them had Indian wives."

A true story set amid the power straggles between the British government and the Mughals, it's the tale of a tragic love affair between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a Scottish merchant with the East India Company, and Khair un-Nissa, a beautiful Mughal princess.

"With the last book, I have jumped genre slightly. Previously they were travel books with a bit of history, but this is a history book with a little bit of travel," he says. "It was going to be about lots of different people who had 'gone native', so to speak. After I finished my advance, I was all set to start writing the book when suddenly this fabulous material turned up, giving the other side of the story." Dalrymple had spent three years working on a book in which Kirkpatrick and Khair featured in just one chapter. Only then did he realise that the fellow Scot's story demanded his writing an entirely different book and taking "a terrific gamble".

Dalrymple remortgaged his home, took his children out of private education and lived off a "whopping big" overdraft for two years to do it. "I gave my wife and my parents complete kittens," be says. "I wasn't so much confident as anxious, but the material was so good that I knew it was going to be a wonderful story to tell."

The gamble has already paid off. White Mughals has sold more than 100,000 copies--four times more than his previous hardbacks. It has also won the Scottish Book of the Year Award and the Wolfson History Prize, the prize money for both of these being 10,000 [pounds sterling]. However, it looks set to be a bigger pay day for Dalrymple than he initially expected. The Academy Award-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton has secured the theatre rights to the book, which will be brought to the West End by the Asian theatre company Tamasha. Now, Dalrymple is taking offers from Bollywood and Hollywood, and US television network HBO wants to make a six-hour, US$60million (38 million [pounds sterling]) mini-series. …

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A Scotsman in India: William Dalrymple's Meticulously Researched Books Have Made Him One of the Most Popular Travel Writers of His Generation. as He Begins the Follow-Up to the Award-Winning White Mughals, He Talks to Christian Amodeo about Islam, India and International Politics
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