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...

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.

Riaz Haq said...

Apologists for empire like to claim that the British brought democracy, the rule of law and trains to India. Isn’t it a bit rich to oppress, torture and imprison a people for 200 years, then take credit for benefits that were entirely accidental?

by Shashi Tharoor

Many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?

Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.

Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.

Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.

In the years after 1757, the British astutely fomented cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule. Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire. As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”.

Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.

Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.