Saturday, April 5, 2008
An Evening With William Dalrymple in Silicon Valley
William Dalrymple was invited to Silicon Valley to spend an evening on April 4, 2008, with TIE charter members. TIE is an organization consisting mainly of technology entrepreneurs of Indian origin but it also includes other South Asian entrepreneurs from Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. I had a chance attend this event with Mr. Dalrymple along with other charter members of TIE Silicon Valley.
William Dalrymple is a British writer, historian and journalist. He writes about South Asia, the Middle East, Mughal rule, the Muslim world and early Eastern Christianity. All of his six books have won major literary prizes. His first three were travel books based on his journeys in the Middle East, India and Central Asia.
More recently, Dalrymple has published a book of essays about South Asia, and two award-winning histories of the interaction between the British and the Mughals between the eighteenth and mid nineteenth century. Dalrymple is the son of Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple and a cousin of Virginia Woolf. He was educated at Ampleforth College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was first a history exhibitioner then senior history scholar.
At the Silicon Valley event, Dalrymple talked about and read from three of his best known books: Xanadu, The White Mughals and The Last Mughal.
Talking about Xanadu, he said he set out to write a book about how he assumed the Muslims had destroyed Christian churches and Hindu temples throughout the Middle East and South Asia. As he traveled from Jerusalem to Mongolia to write "Xanadu", he was surprised to see that Muslims had, in fact, been very tolerant of other religions and allowed their practice in their holy places to continue under Muslim rule. He then read a passage from Xanadu about a Greek monk he met in Palestine.
Then Dalrymple went on talk about his research into the pre-Victorian India of the late 18th and early 19th century when the British officers of East India company inter-married with local Indian women of both Muslim and Hindu faith. In fact, each had multiple wives and dozens of children. The book focuses on an officer named James Achilles Kirkpatrick who married Khairun Nisa, the niece of the prime minister of Hyderabad.
It was only after the British government directly took control of India when a system of apartheid began and eventually led to the great rebellion of 1857 against the British rule. An interesting fact he mentioned is that, in the 18th century Mughal era, India was the richest country in the world producing 22% of the world GDP (about the same as the US share now) and Britain contributed about 5%. By early 20th century, these figures completely reversed.
Dalrymple read a sad poem by Bahadur Shah Zafar in the period after the rebellion when Zafar was sent into exile.
In answer to a question about the authenticity of the Bollywood movie "Jodaa Akbar", which has drawn protests from Hindu nationalists and banned in Rajastan, Dalrymple said the protests by the VHP and the RSS were motivated by bigotry and found them "abhorrent".
In 2007-8, Dalrymple traveled extensively in Pakistan to cover the pro-democracy protests, the lawyers movement and the elections. He has written two very significant pieces focusing on difference between perception and reality of India and Pakistan sixty years after independence and Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy.
In August 2007, Dalrymple traveled to both India and Pakistan to see for himself how the two countries are doing 60 years after independence. Here's an excerpt from what he wrote:
"In the world's media, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden and the only US ally that Washington appears ready to bomb."
"On the ground, of course, the reality is different and first-time visitors to Pakistan are almost always surprised by the country's visible prosperity. There is far less poverty on show in Pakistan than in India, fewer beggars, and much less desperation. In many ways the infrastructure of Pakistan is much more advanced: there are better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity. Middle-class Pakistani houses are often bigger and better appointed than their equivalents in India."
More recently, in March 2008, Dalrymple wrote a very optimistic piece about Pakistan pointing out positive changes in the form of a resurgent middle class:
"It was this newly enriched and empowered urban middle class that showed its political muscle for the first time with the organization of a lawyers' movement, whose protests against the dismissal of the chief justice soon swelled into a full-scale pro-democracy campaign, despite Musharraf's harassment and arrest of many lawyers. The movement represented a huge shift in Pakistani civil society's participation in politics. The middle class were at last moving from their living rooms onto the streets, from dinner parties into political parties."