‘Emphasising loot and plunder by the British’: William Dalrymple chats about The Anarchy
William Dalrymple's The Anarchy is his fourth book, based on a historical period that he says has always attracted him and yet, according to him, has remained a very under-studied period.
“I think people who haven’t read my books often assume that I have been writing about the Mughals non-stop for thirty years, but actually it’s this transitional period, sometimes called the Twilight, which I call the Anarchy, which is just endlessly fascinating, very very under-studied and full of colour and interest and surprise,” he tells us, as he begins his book tour in India.
Here, the celebrated historian chats with Indulge about his latest outing, and the rich historical sources that he delved into during research. Edited excerpts from the interview:
With the new wave of Western Imperialism gathering force, what makes this historical account all the more relevant to our times?
What this book fixes on is the fact that India was actually conquered not by a nation state, but far more sinisterly, by a corporation. And, the East India Company was not the British Government.
Over the course of the 18th century, it became more closely aligned with the British Government, so that by the early 19th century, it had become a sort of public-private partnership.
But for the first 200 years, it was very much a libertarian dream of this unregulated capitalist monster, which is doing its own thing, and often training its guns on the British state in the sense of bribing MPs and lobbying the parliament to forward its own interests over the state, and this was well known in the 18th century.
If you read critiques in the British newspapers of the 18th century, everyone was appalled that a corporation run by a body of merchants out of a boardroom in the city of London was running, what was — after the Fall of America or the Independence of America — nominally, the most important British colony.
When I have been touring this book around Britain, I have been emphasising the loot and plunder that the British don’t know.
The British always long to see the redeeming side of their empire, wanting of course to believe the best of their ancestors and so, I think it is very important to give it straight that this was about looting and not about building railways or any of the rest of it.
One of the things I’m emphasising on in India, is the degree to which it was done, through the collaborations.
From the beginning, it was the Jugat Seths who were the first to encourage the company to get involved in Indian politics by toppling Siraj ud-Daulah and bribing Clive to affect a palace coup, whereby
Mir Jafar was put on the throne and then subsequently, the Hindu bankers then bankrolling the company operations.
And when the Company affected land reforms and broke up the Mughal estates and put them up for auction, it was this class of Hindu entrepreneurs out of Kolkata — the Mullicks, the Tagores, and the Debs — who were bidding for the land, and becoming the new establishment, the bhadralok.
And, this was born in a collaborative move with the Company. It’s an uncomfortable story… The important part of the story is the degree to which many people, particularly in Bengal in the 18th century, clearly made the decision that however bad the Company is, it’s the least worst option compared with the other alternatives — Mughal or Maratha rule.
So, did you intend this to be a cautionary tale?
Yes. There are two stories really in this book. One is the story that I have just described, of how a company conquered India.
But, it’s also a more general story about the power of the corporation versus the power of the State. I had no idea when I began this book six years ago in 2013, that (American politician, former academic) Elizabeth Warren will be going around on her campaign trail lecturing on this every time, about the power of the corporations.
I mean, I very much plough my own furrow and don’t particularly choose which book to write on the basis of current trends, and as these books take at least three years, or sometimes six, it would be foolish if I did. But it has been incredibly good timing, as far as I’m concerned (laughs).
What historical sources did you draw upon while sketching out characters like Shah Alam, Ghulam Qadir and Mahadji Scindia?
The sources for the company are obvious. They are the ones in the British Library, and the National Archives, which are the papers from Fort Williams, which was the Company Headquarters in India.
But to write about Shah Alam, Ghulam Qadir and so on, you have to go to Mughal sources. Particularly useful was this new Shah Alam Nama (by Munshi Munna Lal) that we found in the Research Institute in Tonk in Rajasthan, which is an incredibly important and previously unused source.
There is a wonderful Ibrat Nama by Fakir Khair ud-Din Illahabadi. Ibrat Namas are like cautionary tales, books of admonition, and we found this particular one in the British Library.
There is also a Tarikh-i Muzaffari by Mohammad Ali Khan Ansari of Panipat. He writes particularly on what’s going on in Bihar and Bengal. So, it’s a very well-covered period.
The most revealing sources have been in English for a long time like Ghulam Hussain Khan’s Seir Mutaqherin, or Review of Modern Times that was available in English, but not often used, as it’s quite dense.
It’s four volumes long and written in 18th century English, and so people have not realised the gems it contains. It contains very detailed first-hand portraits of a lot of the major characters, including Shah Alam.
Ghulam Hussain Khan really was the first Indian to write about what colonialism or colonisation actually meant on the ground, the way an alien class can come in, build buildings in a different style, refuse to employ artisans unless they built in the Western style, and he wrote rather like in the manner of Edward Said in Orientalism, but 200 years earlier.
He was writing in the 1780s, and it’s an absolutely wonderful source. There’s a guy called Bruce Wannell with whom I have worked with for all four of my Company books; White Mughals, The Last Mughal, The Return of a King, and this one.
He was probably the best translator of 18th century Indian Persian. He came and lived with me for six months, and we went through this stuff together, because he knows the language, but not the history, and I know the history, but not the language — and so, between us, we did a detailed study of all this.
His translations, I think, are the most exciting new source in this material. There are also quite a lot of French sources that have never been translated before.
There is a wonderful character, one of my favourite sources of this period — from the travels of the Comte de Modave, who was a friend of Voltaire.
An incredibly enlightened philosopher, he ends up going bankrupt in middle age, having to come out to India to try and make a fortune — which he doesn’t do. Instead, he ends up dying here.
But he wrote four volumes of spectacular memoirs that have never been translated in English. A scholarly French edition was published out of Pondicherry only about ten years ago, and we used that.
He again knew everyone — he met Shah Alam, he met Shuja in Lucknow, he met Mir Qasim in Bengal, and so it’s first-hand accounts of all these people, and an incredibly sophisticated analysis.
Also, he doesn’t like the British, but he comes to quite admire their ruthlessness (laughs).
Can you give us an insight into your writing process?
So these are long projects and this one took six years. Year one is really travelling with the last book and reading all the kind of secondary stuff.
When I am doing a book tour, like at the moment, I am beginning to think about my next book. Year two is in the archives, deep in the National Archives, British Library, getting out the Persian sources and so on and then year three and four you are putting it together.
I have a dateline on my laptop, I have card indexes for each character so the characters build up as you read different sources and you begin to understand them more fully.
And then the final year is just writing and I lock myself away. I never go out at lunch at all. I am in there writing all day. I get up early. I print out at the end of the day the day’s work which I read in the early morning with a pen on my terrace.
Then correct it, feed in the corrections, hopefully write new material by ten or eleven in the morning. I continue till about three or four without having lunch.
So it’s like going to University again where the first couple of years are about pissing around slightly but then there are the finals (laughs).
And I wrote this in I suppose ten months in the end starting in May last year and finishing in February this year.
What are you working on next?
Though I am not sure what form it is going to take, I want to do some sort of a big art history or cultural history project. And the current form I think it is in, would be something like a history of the Indian Civilisation in 21 cities. It’s a big project.
At this point, I’m now in my mid-50s. If I don’t take on the big projects now, then when? (Laughs.) It’s sort of Mohenjodaro, Taksila, Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram, Tanjore, Vijaynagar, Bijapur, Fatehpur Sikri, Kishangarh, New Delhi... something like that. I want to write more about art and culture and less about politics next.
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, INR 1,349.
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In terms of fiction, of classics, Tolstoy but also Tru Capote, Cormac McCarthy. In history, it would be Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman who wrote A History of the Crusades, Stella Tillyard, Linda Colley. And in travel: Robert Byron, Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Contemporary underrated authors?
Lots and lots. I am really thrilled by this new generation of Indian historians that are coming up. Manu Pillai, Ira Mukhoty, Parvati Sharma. I think they are all, particularly Manu who is now in his third book is showing incredible talent and in a sense, I better watch my back (laughs).
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading a really big early Cormac McCarthy called Suttree ,which is tough going but amazing. I am reading Trois Contes (Three Tales) by Flaubert. I am also reviewing Richard Eaton’s new history of the Persian experience of Indian history
A book that has had a significant impact on you as a writer?
The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Steven Runciman which is my favourite history book. The Road to Oxiana was the book that taught me how to do travel writing and The Fall of Constantinople taught me how to write history.
— Simar Bhasin