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."


Riaz Haq said...

Here's a commentary by Soutik Biswas of the BBC on Jaipur clash between Dalrymple and Bal:

In a rather dishevelled and provocative opening salvo on why Indians writing in English crave "British approval", Bal took a swipe at Dalrymple describing him as a "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India". He skewered the Jaipur festival - which opened today - for its obsession with British writers: "If Jaipur matters as a festival, it is because of the writers from Britain it attracts." The festival, he wrote, "works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment". And if Dalrymple appears central to our literary culture, signed off Bal, it says "something more damaging about us than about him".

Dalrymple hit back with an acerbic rebuttal using strong language. He described Bal's piece as "blatantly racist", saying it "felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant's letterbox".

He tore into Bal's argument that the Jaipur festival was a British jamboree - British writers "brown, black and white" make up a "minority within the minority" of foreigners, he wrote, adding that two thirds of the writers invited were Desis (South Asians).

On the face of it, it is difficult to contest this defence - the festival's two key international speakers are Turkish (Orhan Pamuk) and South African (JM Coetzee), there are sessions on literature from India's neglected north-east, from Palestinians, Israelis and Pakistanis. Minority and Dalit (Untouchable) writing features too. Dalrymple also accused Bal of "double standards and reverse racism".

Bal picked up the gauntlet, denying the racism barb and said that Dalrymple did not know "what it means to suffer the indignity he so easily cites in his defence". He added: "I have had to stand in a London tube as drunk football falls pouring out of a match called into question the race and origins of people such as me."

The dust-up has predictably raised the hackles of commentators both in India and Britain - The Telegraph in London called Bal's piece a "nasty piece of journalism"; respondents in Open magazine worried about Dalrymple's literary influence in India and accused him of writing shallow books on Mughals.

But for the personal attacks on both sides, this appears to be a stale debate. Indian writers have benefited from British approval for nearly a century now. WB Yeats introduced Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali (Song of Offering) to the world in 1912. It became his best known work in the world and won him the Nobel Prize. The doyen of Indian writing in English, RK Narayan, was introduced to the world by Graham Greene who recommended his debut novel to a publisher, leading to its publication in 1935. Salman Rushdie won the Booker for Midnight's Children a good half a century later.

The debate about whether Indians writing in English look for approval from abroad - or to foreign publishers and awards - also has a sense of deja vu about it. One of India's award-winning writers Shashi Deshpande has argued that Indian writing in English smacks of post-colonialism. She has said that such writers "do not know any Indian language well enough" and that "the outsider's assessment still remains the privileged one". Writer Meenakshi Mukherjee has dwelt upon Indians writing in English being gripped by an "anxiety of Indian-ness" - "Indian-ness" being a quality their books needed to travel abroad.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's Aaakar Patel on Punjabis and Urdu-speakers of Bollywood:

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation's biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.

Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.

The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India's television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood's Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi's culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus - Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Riaz Haq said...

By comparing Akbar to Hitler, BJP shows there’s no place for even a 'good' Muslim in India’s history
by Shoaib Daniyal

While Akbar and Aurangzeb are attacked for their faults – an easy enough thing to do given how different modern values are from medieval times – Pratap is let off. Temple destruction is a hot topic of debate but untouchability and caste is silently forgotten. Tsunamis of uninformed outrage crash onto the internet over the Mughal treatment of Hindus but there is pin-drop silence on the Rajput treatment of Dalits. If one is objective about using 21st century values to judge 16th century potentates, no one will come out smelling of roses.


Akbar made alliances with Hindu Rajputs, who were the backbone of his army – even at Haldighati, Akbar entrusted his forces to a Rajput, Man Singh (who has his own Delhi road). He had a Khatri, Todar Mal, for his finance minister, whose revenue system more than anything, ensured that the Mughals ruled for three centuries. Theological debates were organised by the emperor at a time when religious-driven prejudice was so strong that most Indians wouldn’t even so much as touch each other for fear of losing their jati and "upper" castes thought most of their countrymen subhuman. Jalaluddin, it seems, even left formal Islam, founding a religion called the Deen-e-Ilahi, angering the Muslim clergy – a grudge held till today by conservative Muslims.

The clamour to rename Aurangzeb Road was pinned on the man being a tyrant. However, in spite of these spades of liberalness, why is Akbar in the cross-hairs today?

The answer is simple: the powerful demand to strike out Akbar Road shows rather clearly that the move to rename Aurangzeb Road had very little to do with the character of Aurangzeb itself. While modern scholarship has shown that the colonial binary between Akbar and Aurangzeb was a false one, making cardboard cut-outs of complex historical figures and administrative systems, at the end of the day, in the public sphere, Akbar or Aurangzeb really doesn’t matter: any Muslim ruler simply has no place in the popular historical imagination as an Indian anymore.