When asked which of William Dalrymple’s books has most influenced me, I have to pause to weigh them up. My introduction to the author of 11 best-sellers was not In Xanadu
(written when William was 21) or City of Djinns
, though many people say these travelogues inspired a wanderlust that came to define their lives.
I first read White Mughals,
the tragic love story of East India Company officer James Kirkpatrick, a British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1798, and Kahir un-Nissa – the great-niece of the Nizam’s prime minister. With humour and empathy, William gives us the details to bring to life magnificent Mughal India.
Next I devoured The Last Mughal
which chronicles the siege of Delhi after which the British took the city and exiled Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal emperor. I had the opportunity to watch William and Vidya Shah present this history at the Dhaka Hay Lit Fest 2014 in a seamless blend of literature, poetry and music. Despite his busy schedule, William made time to support Bangladeshi writers at our lit fest and is coming again this year to do the same.
I visited India once many years ago, my first trip with my father and sister after my mother died. We sat where Shah Jahan spent the last of his lonely days imprisoned, watching the glorious Taj in a diamond mirror; we prayed amidst the mystic fervour of Ajmer Sharif as we tried to piece ourselves back together. Reading William’s book took me back to those tender days.
Shortly after, William’s book Kohinoor: The Story of the World's Most Infamous Diamond came out. I saw William and Anita Anand present this book at JLF 2017 and what amazing story tellers they were, as captivating as ever, with sagas of loot, murder, torture, violence, deceit and colonial greed!
I enjoyed William’s documentary Sufi Soul: Mystic Music of Islam
and loved the Qawali band he introduced at the Jaipur Lit Fest 2010. Incidentally, the JLF, William’s gift to writers, is the largest collection of lit lovers in the world, presenting an opportunity for writers and aspiring writers to join a growing community of support.
These books, documentaries and experiences were very much a part of the adventure that resulted in my novel, Dark Diamond,
my foray into the blood and gore that surrounds valuable diamonds in India.
Shortly after, William’s book Kohinoor: The Story of the World's Most Infamous Diamond
came out. I saw William and Anita Anand present this book at JLF 2017 and what amazing story tellers they were, as captivating as ever, with sagas of loot, murder, torture, violence, deceit and colonial greed!
I also saw William present his latest history book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan,
which tells the story of Britain's invasion of Afghanistan. I was drawn in not only by William’s research skills – he did “the Indiana Jones-kind of research, dodging bullets and getting rare manuscripts” – but also by his enthusiasm which makes his writing and story-telling larger than life.
“Journalism has the pleasure of instant gratification,” says William. “It is like a very nice Bengali sweet — some mishti doi or some gulab jamun or something that you pop down and feel a delicious sugar rush hit you. It is instantaneous. A history book is more like a huge Mughlai feast with an enormous raan and Peshawari naans that will sustain you, and is a substantial thing, it takes a long time to prepare. History books are real hard work. They are exhausting to do and are no more fun than going to the dentist. But at the end of it, you do something you are proud of, and which will stay on the shelves, hopefully, forever.”
This brings me to Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
, a series of biographies that explore the rich religious heritage of the subcontinent. Of the biographies, one might think my favourite would be that of Lal Peri Mastani, the ecstatic red fairy who lives and dances at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. I was happy to see William discuss the rising threat of Wahabism. “Arabisation of Islam” is all too pervasive in Bangladesh too and it would be good for us to have a few more writers speaking about it.
My favourite story though, the one that had the greatest impact on me, was about Prasannamati Mataji. Drawn to the ascetic purity of Jainism, she plucks out each strand of hair, wears unstitched cotton saris and lives off charity alone but it is not until she watches her best friend and fellow nun starve herself to death that her faith is truly tested. She then decides to follow this route and starves herself too. What struck me was the fortitude with which she faces death.
On July 2, 2016, Holey Bakery was attacked by terrorists. Holey had been a shrine for us. We went there for Thursday night dinner, Friday afternoon tea, Saturday morning brunch. It was our oasis in the urban jungle of Dhaka. When terrorists swarmed the place, we watched on television with tears in our eyes and prayers on our lips, feeling helpless. When we heard the next morning of the massacre, I felt all courage drain out of me. As it was, I was wearing around me a blanket of fear following the brutal killings of 23 people. For one month, I stayed home, a zombie. My friends encouraged me to be bold, to write and teach yoga and take my children out of the house, to defy the terrorists. I could not. I kept thinking of my young nephew who died on that bloody day, of the mere boys who perpetrated the crime, brainwashed into thinking that they were doing something noble. I began spiralling into depression.
That was when I read Nine Lives
. The story of the nun, who with courage and determination faced death, played like a mantra in my head and finally helped me find the strength to face the day. I am ever grateful to William for finding this nun and sharing her tale with all the pathos and pain which perhaps only he could do. His words have not only expanded my horizon but also inspired me and helped me in countless ways.
Shazia Omar is a Bangladeshi fiction writer. Her second novel, Dark Diamond, was published by Bloomsbury India in 2016.