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Almost Everything That People Think They Know About The Kohinoor Is False: William Dalrymple

Over a leisurely meal at his farm in Delhi, the historian speaks about the controversial diamond, the East India Company, the Jaipur Literature Festival and more.

14/11/2016 12:27 AM IST | Updated 21/11/2016 10:30 AM IST

The goats consider the man who lives on their farm. As usual he stands with one hand on his hip and watches them with aching love, as though he is looking at something of himself. This morning there is a stranger with him, a brown man who asks the indecent question, "William, are the goats pets or food?"

"A bit of both, I guess," William Dalrymple says.

But the goats, who are running from one part of the farm to another, are not offended. They do not take anyone on the farm seriously, not even the dogs.

The free range chicken are alarmed by the charging goats. They, too, consider William Dalrymple. He never looks at them with as much affection as he does at the goats, he never chases their infants with open arms. But the instinct of the chickens tells them that it is probably a good thing that he does not run after them with open arms.

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The sleek mongrel, too, considers Dalrymple. "Walk," the master says and the mongrel becomes ecstatic, and begins to prance and strut as though it is trying out being different animals. The farm is large, and the dog is never tied, yet he appears to love his walks down the narrow lanes outside the farm. "He is a melancholic dog," Dalrymple tells the visitor, "But when I say, 'walk' he goes mad with joy". He says "walk" in an accent that he probably thinks is some kind of dog dialect even though the dog follows the refined Scotsman's English perfectly. In fact the dog can even speak one English word when he is overjoyed, which is "walk".

Dalrymple considers himself in the display screen of the camera. The photographer waits for his reaction. The historian and author of several books, most famously of White Mughals, is not happy with something, but it is not clear what. He runs his fingers on his scalp.

He then surveys his farm, which runs around a graceful bungalow. It is a quiet morning reflection of his own peaceful charming life. Mira Singh Farm is among the many estates in the southern edge of Delhi. "It's rented," he says. "Did you think I owned this place? Oh, no, no, no."

In the foyer of the house, the food is laid out on a bare wooden table. His wife Olivia Fraser, who observes him with affection and forbearance, joins him for a while. There is soup made from yoghurt, and lamb pieces on hummus, and salad. Almost everything on the table is from the farm.

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Very soon a slim book that he has co-written with Anita Anand would be released. It is a biography of the Kohinoor diamond. "Almost everything that people think they know about the Kohinoor is false," he says with historian's glee.

A successful historical lie reminds us of the fact that history is not time because history is never continuous. Truths disappear in the cracks between the ages, and they emerge as marvellous stories. This nature of history raises some enjoyable questions that would annoy the intense. What if culture is as broken as history? Is a broken culture, then, culture in the first place? If culture is not an inheritance, is it still culture? Are we all homeless then who merely imagine home? The breaks in histories mean that the present does not always emerge from the past, the present emerges only from the immediate past, a reason why history should never be confused as heritage. It is somewhat easy for Indians to accept this, even though reluctantly, because they are accustomed to broken histories. But for a Briton, like Dalrymple, who comes from a culture where historical records are rich and preserved, history is heritage, and it is intoxicating. He is perhaps addicted to tracing the many flows that connect the ancient to the modern.

His next big project is the history of the East India Company, the joint-stock company that ruled India for about a hundred years. Dalrymple is fascinated by the power of this ancient, now defunct, corporation which was richer, more weaponised and by far more evil than any of the modern giants.

Most informed Indians would say that the uprising of 1857 was defeated by the Company and that Indians had lost. There is, of course, technical truth in this but there is another way of looking at it, as Dalrymple points out. "The mutiny and the manner in which the Company handled the situation" contributed to the nationalisation of the corporation's Indian assets and the Crown's taken over of its territories. In just a few years after that, the company would go bust. In a way, Indians had won, and it was a historically underrated victory. The natives had not wrestled back control of their land, that power was transferred from the Company to the British government, but they had meted out justice to the evil corporation.

Watch William Dalrymple speak about his favourite Indian author and the writer he most wants to see at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

William Dalrymple on BWH

Did the history of corporations play a part in reforming modern companies? Like many other features of present-day, are our corporations too better, more ethical and more humane than their predecessors? Dalrymple, marinated in the history of the Company, is in no doubts about that. As a writer and a social elite he is naturally wary of capitalism but he also suspects that the Invisible Hand leads slowly to a better place more often than it molests.

For a Briton, like Dalrymple, who comes from a culture where historical records are rich and preserved, history is heritage, and it is intoxicating. He is perhaps addicted to tracing the many flows that connect the ancient to the modern.

Most modern writers are beneficiaries of capitalism. At the simplest level, the chances are their publishers are giant multinational corporations. Dalrymple has another avatar that encourages him to look kindly at corporations. He is a director of the one of the most popular literature festivals in the world — the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is free for the public, its enormous bills picked up by corporate sponsorship. The next edition, in January 2017, would be its tenth year.

"I am just a salaried employee of Sanjoy Roy who owns the festival," Dalrymple says. But for many, Dalrymple, along with Namita Gokhale and Sanjoy Roy, is the face of the festival, which is the grandest Indian intellectual event, generally loved by everyone who is not inconvenienced by bitterness, ideology or private histories with the organisers.

He is cautiously amused by some writers who boycott the Jaipur festival citing its corporate sponsorship. Arundhati Roy, for instance, does not attend the festival because she claims it is some kind of a capitalistic sin. It would be amusing, though unlikely, if she asks her (multinational) publishers not to send her next novel to the Man Booker Prize as a protest against a hedge fund's sponsorship of the prize. Also, the prize derives its name from its former sponsor, the Booker Group, which is a food wholesaler. "Historically, employers of slave labour," he says chuckling. He says it without rancour. Hypocrisy, for some reason, does not infuriate him.

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The other popular Indian writer who boycotts the Jaipur festival is Amitav Ghosh. The origin of his disenchantment with the festival lies in a 'reply-all' mishap. A few years ago, the festival had invited Ghosh and he sent his regrets with a mention of a long list of his very important commitments. The mail was forwarded to a top functionary of the festival who wrote, "What a pompous Bengali ass", and she clicked 'reply all' on her new Blackberry.

The acclaimed novelist must consider pardoning the lady, who is a highly regarded writer herself. How long can Amitav Ghosh be miffed with her for calling him a Bengali?

But the top functionary disputes this version. According to her, the message was not, "What a pompous Bengali ass" but "What a typically pompous reply". Simpler then for Ghosh to forgive.

Most writers are happy to attend the festival. They are attracted not only to the prospect of speaking in front of massive crowds. A vital part of the festival unfolds outside the festival venues, in the nighttime, at the parties where professional and personal alliances are forged between equal and unequal writers, artists, publishers, agents and other kinds of literary entrepreneurs. The only meaningful form of networking is that which is not known as networking, and the Jaipur festival does make it all look dignified to those who know how to work it.

The only meaningful form of networking is that which is not known as networking, and the Jaipur festival does make it all look dignified to those who know how to work it.

The other director of the festival is the writer Namita Gokhale, whose latest novel, Things to Leave Behind, was released days ago. "I love her," Dalrymple says. Gokhale and Dalrymple have had several ferocious fights concerning the running of the festival but their relationship has never collapsed.

Dalrymple's chief responsibility is to get hugely popular foreigners to speak at the festival, and Gokhale's mission is to celebrate Indian writing, especially the literature of regional Indian languages. "One of our early fights," Gokhale says, "was about me trying to impress upon William that an Indian writer does not need a mention in the New York Times to be invited to the festival. Indian writers do not need endorsement from any other culture to be considered important."

The strength of Dalrymple and Gokhale as a team is their ability to make compromises for each other, a talent they have extended to contain far more lethal adversaries. Sometimes compromises are more valiant than the facile pomposities of rebellion.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is a reminder that it is hard for high stakes and free speech to go hand in hand. A literature festival would naturally claim that it is about free speech, and the Jaipur festival is serious about it, but such a luxury is not always possible in India. Free speech, when it is not a confused imitation of the West, is often the privilege of those who have very little to lose. The festival is too precious to the organisers for them to always choose freedom over survival. The reason why, on a few occasions, the Jaipur festival had no choice but to surrender free speech to the wishes of goons: 2012 was an infamous occasion.

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Weeks before the edition, word spread that Salman Rushdie would be talking at the festival. It was not uncommon for Rushdie to visit India and to give a talk, but because the festival was very high profile, his rumoured attendance began to acquire considerable political and journalistic interest. Days before the festival was to begin, Dalrymple was wise to keep Rushdie's name off the programme list. But then Rushdie called to ask why his name had not been declared, and Dalrymple agreed to officially release the name. "My big mistake". The official confirmation of Rushdie's arrival inspired Muslim political goons to intensify the protests. The Congress government at the Centre was not forceful in its defence of Rushdie's right to talk at the festival. Around that time, when I had met Dalrymple at a book reading, he told me, "Even if there is the threat of a nuclear explosion, Salman will come to Jaipur." But the pressure kept building. The Intelligence Bureau told the organisers of the festival that two snipers had left Mumbai to assassinate Rushdie in Jaipur. In the end, Rushdie cancelled the visit. A live streaming of his talk, too, was cancelled.

In Barkha Dutt's interview with Rushdie for NDTV she asked him if there was any backdoor communication between him and the government. "No," he said. But that was the analysis of the naïve literary novelist. Of course there was backdoor communication between him and the government, he just did not know it. The government was speaking through his friends, the organisers of the festival; the government was communicating by planting false intelligence reports that exaggerated the risk to his life.

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"It was an unpleasant decision," Dalrymple says about the cancellation of Rushdie's talk, "the most unpleasant we have ever taken but those were very very tense days. Those of us who were responsible for the safety of the writers and of the thousands of people who attend the festival, we could not think purely in terms of freedom of speech. In the end the owner of the venue told us he cannot host Rushdie. It was an honourable way out for us."

Those of us who were responsible for the safety of the writers and of the thousands of people who attend the festival, we could not think purely in terms of freedom of speech. - William Dalrymple

The following year, it was the turn of Dalits to claim they were offended by a speaker. Scores of them marched to the venue, laughing and waving at the television cameras, to state that they were very offended.

Every year, journalists have come to anticipate newsworthy trouble at the festival. Dalrymple does not enjoy those moments, but he would continue as director as long as he can. "I don't wish to change the world," he says. His motivation as literary curator is personal. When he was seventeen, he had heard George Steiner, the American writer and literary critic, speak. At the end of the lecture, young Dalrymple decided he wanted to be a writer. "I want to give such moments to people. That's what I am after. This festival is something utterly extraordinary and wonderful and important: a third of a million people, most of them very young, coming en masse every year to hear the greatest minds and writers in the world, completely for free. Kids come all the way from Assam and Tamil Nadu, dodging fares and sleeping rough on Jaipur railway station to hear our writers. I really couldn't be more proud of what we've created."

This is part of HuffPost India's exclusive interview series, Breakfast With HuffPost, presented by Lufthansa. The other interviews in the series are here.

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