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Chasing history

  • Published at 09:13 am November 25th, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:16 pm December 10th, 2017
Chasing history

In an interview with the Times of India earlier this year, you've mentioned how Indian history is much like Game of Thrones. Is that complicated, enigmatic appeal part of why your work focuses so much on the history of this particular region?

Indian history is an endless cornucopia of wonders. I've never run out of exciting and fascinating things to write about – I'm like a child in a sweet shop. I'm also very lucky because there's very little tradition in this country of biography or narrative history. Most history that's written in South Asia comes out of academic departments and is written for other academics and is quite dry, and while I'm not denigrating that, it is what it is – it's not literature. There are very few writers in South Asia who research like historians, but write for a general audience. And I feel I'm very lucky in that regard, because I feel I have an opening there with very few competitors. As a result, my books sell wonderfully well. In the old days I used to write for the British, European and American audience in mind, but these days my biggest audience by a long way is South Asia. There's a growing fascination with history in this region and people are interested to read history written in a literary manner. You do your research in the archives from primary sources like any historian, but then you have an option of what mode you write your research up in. Do you choose to write in an academic language for fellow academics, or do you write in a literary language for people who enjoy reading? And I choose the latter. I'm very lucky, especially in the area I write about – from the late Mughal period through to the early colonial period – there's virtually nothing written on it. And my current subject – the East India Company, and the fall of the Mughals – there's almost nothing in print. It's extraordinary and fascinating, and the reference to Game of Thrones I suppose is in the unbelievable violence that is part of this history. For example, Shah Alam, my hero, who starts off in the beginning of this book as a handsome young prince, battling his way out of Delhi, much like prince Caspian in the Narnia stories, ends up having his eyes ripped out by Ghulam Qadir, and dying a blind king in a ruined palace – how Game of Thrones is that!

As the co-founder of the Jaipur Lit Fest, how do you think our newer Dhaka Lit Fest compares?

I'm super impressed. In a sense, the surprise is that Jaipur hasn't had more competiton. It's not that it’s a formula which can't be repeated, and yet 11 years on, we are much bigger than any other South Asian literary festival. All the other Indian ones, with the exception of Chennai and Bombay Times of India, tend to feature the same Indian writers in English, going round and round. They neither do what we do in terms of "bhasha" programming – programming outside English. About a third of our sessions are in Hindi or Rajasthani or Bengali and certainly are about literature in those languages. Nor do they have the international programs we do – a third of our authors are international. The only two festivals that have even the beginnings of an international list are here and in Lahore. I would imagine that 10 years on, we would be facing much more competiton than we are. As Dhaka Lit Fest shows, festivals can grow quite quickly and confidently in just a couple of years.
Writing itself is work. The process of actually putting down words on paper is painful, it's like sitting for an exam, not something I particularly enjoy doing

Writers in Bangladesh, looking to write about Bangladesh or Bengal in general, often struggle from a lack of proper documentation of our region's history, compared to what is available across the border. How do we research?

Well the two big depositories of Colonial Era documentation are at the National Archives in Delhi, and the British Library, which inherited the whole India Office Library, and neither of those two archives are likely to give up their treasures. On the other hand, both those institutions are engaged in a rapid process of digitalisation and putting their collections online. So one answer is online. But the other answer is that, I'm afraid historians, by the nature of their work, have to travel. One of the reasons I live in Delhi is to have access to the National Archives, which is the main repository of all the stuff I write about, and if I lived anywhere else in the world, well, I'd have to travel to Delhi to study it. It's just the way it is.

You're a renowned historian and you're also well known for your work on travel writing. What has been your best travel experience so far?

I think the moment for any traveller, which in my case was at the age of 18 and again at 21 with the Xanadu journey, is when for the first time you are free to travel on your own and you have the resources to be able to travel cheaply, as a backpacker, on buses, etc, and that is a moment of great release. And like a first love affair, it can never quite be repeated. Normal life, reality, middle age, all these things set in and the thrill of your first love affair and the thrill of your first journey abroad are things which remain with you forever. So if I had to choose a best travel experience, it would either be my first year in India at age 18 through to 19, travelling as a backpacker, sleeping rough, unable to afford a hotel three times a week, or my Xanadu journey at the age of 21, from Jerusalem, up the Karakoram Highway to China, to Xanadu in Mongolia. I don't know which of those two unforgettable journeys I would pick.

What inspires you to write?

I don't have a sort of innate urge just to sit down in the morning and take up a pen and scribble. I'm driven to research and write about things that interest me. So when I get interested in something, I buy the books, begin to devour them and think up ways to shape them and put it together in writing. As a writer, it means you can pursue your interests and go off and make a living by writing about whatever it is that interests you. It is a wonderfully flexible way of earning a living. Writing itself is work. The process of actually putting down words on paper is painful, it's like sitting for an exam, not something I particularly enjoy doing. The whole process of writing a book, from beginning and conception to researching it, to travelling around, looking at places where the book is set and so on, is a wonderful thing, but the actual writing process, which for me is the last year of the five year research project, is desperate. It's like having three years of university, at the end of which you have your finals. This thing looms closer and closer until its upon you and you have to sit down and put your words in order. Particularly the first two, three months of a new book is hell! It's like being an Olympic athlete who's terribly unfit from lack of practice, and you make a mess of things and it's depressing. But as with Olympic runners, six months in you're in a high state of training. You're in a routine, things come much more easily and what you write tends to be better, and by the final downhill slope of the last bit of the book, on lucky days, one's often writing 5,000 really good words a day, while at the beginning, you're stumbling to write even 1,000.

Tell us something about your latest work.

I've just finished a book called Kohinoor, about the Kohinoor diamond, which is probably the single most famous piece of loot that the British “took” from India. It's a fascinating story, because it's like the Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings, where everyone associated with it comes to horrible, sticky ends. It's a fabulous tale, and very complicated – it isn't just India, Bangladesh and Pakistan that claim it, but also Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban who claim it. Everyone wants this diamond and it's a great cause of dissension. This was a book which I co-wrote with Anita Anand. It was provoked by this ridiculous claim that the British were “gifted” the diamond by Ranjit Singh. Now first of all, they fought a war to get it, secondly, Ranjit Singh was 15 years in the grave when this happened, so that whole history needed clarifying, so we went ahead and did that over a short project. I'm now engaged in this monster of a book on the East India Company, and the story of a corporation, the third in the world and by far the most powerful, which by 1850 had an army twice the size of the British army. It's the ultimate example of corporate violence in world history. Once you begin to see it as a corporate story, rather than one in terms of nationalism, it becomes much more interesting, and everything becomes a bit more complex. It's a perfect tale of corporate violence and influence in the age of Trump. Hopefully I'll be back here in a couple of years talking about it.
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