The celebrated Scottish travel writer and historian says travelling to India for the first time as an 18-year-old changed his life
Travelling life: William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple sits at the pinnacle of travel writing. Through the course of almost a dozen books spanning some 30 years, works such as 1993’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi and 2002’s White Mughals, the Scottish author has blended both adventure and studious research in his attempts to understand the cultural and historical nuances of Asia across the centuries.
As a guest of the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, he was in the UAE to promote his latest work of non-fiction, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. Dalrymple, who turned 53 in March, provided audiences with an insight into his work, which he describes as equal mix of travel and laborious writing.
“What I realised is the more I hang out at festivals like this and meet other writers I really admire, the more I realise that the myth of angels dictating to geniuses is just rubbish,” he says. “It’s just not how it works. Writing is more like plumbing. Actually, it’s about the person who spends the longest time fiddling with the spanner.”
How often do you travel?
It depends a lot whether I’m writing. If I’m actually sitting down to write a book, which happens once every three or four years, I don’t travel at all. It’s like finals of college or something. It’s bolting down the hatches. I’m just about to enter that phase and I hate it. It means going on a diet, running, getting up early and not going out. When I’m not writing, I love to travel. I take any opportunity, like this one to go to Dubai to the festival and brag about my book. Anything that gets me out of the house I love it.
Where do you call home?
I’ve lived for the last 30 years in India, in Delhi. I have a goat farm on the edge of Delhi. We also have a small house in London, which I suppose I also call home. We live there two months a year there when it gets too hot. Delhi has a gorgeous climate about eight months a year and it’s completely unliveable four months of the year.
Do you combine business with pleasure on your travels?
I’m a great believer of doing that. A lot of my travel now is festival-hopping, and with that I see my friends. You con yourself into believing you’re promoting your book, but actually you’re just having a nice freebie. I make a rule that if I possibly can that I go off from the festival to see something in the vicinity. I always like to have 48 hours extra added on to the trip and go off and travel and see something.
What was your most recent holiday destination?
My last real holiday was the Karakorams and northern Pakistan a few months ago, which I would recommend to anyone. The most unvisited, most beautiful, most extraordinary part of South Asia.
How often do you travel for pleasure?
About twice a year, if things work out. One holiday is definitely to flop. Morning reading and afternoons on the beach at some shack. Then there’s always the one adventure. So trekking with the family in the Himalayas, that kind of thing. Usually in South Asia, sometimes Bhutan.
What’s your favourite city?
Well, my long-term favourite city has always been Delhi, and I live there because I want to. Other favourite cities within India: I love Cochin in Kerala, gorgeous place. I’ve rather grown to love – which I didn’t used to – Bombay. I’ve had a lot of fun there lately; it’s an amazingly lively city. Outside of India, well, at the moment, I have a big Italian thing going and I love the obvious; Rome, Siena and Lucca.
Do you prefer simplicity or luxury?
I’ll do luxury if it’s available, but I’m very happy to go simple, if not. So in the hills in Pakistan, we as a family all stayed in a couple of really gorgeous hotels for a few days. But the other 10 nights were in perfectly serviceable lodges of some sort.
What do you love about travelling?
If it’s somewhere I love, there’s not much not to like. If I’m somewhere I like, for example that trip to Pakistan - which was just so dazzlingly wonderful – it was the people and the food that were all amazing and the landscapes that were astonishing.
What do you hate about travelling?
Well in South Asia, there’s always things that go wrong. Whether it’s breakdowns, whether it’s flights being delayed or being stuck in airports – that’s one of my big hates. Particularly stuck in a plane on a runway.
Do you prefer to travel light or heavy?
I do have a system and it depends on the length of the travel. If it’s a short trip like this one, I try to travel without check-in baggage. So I get my little Mulberry bag that I can fit on my shoulder and it just comes with me and I can get straight in and out of the plane.
How has travel affected the way that you see the world?
It changed me utterly and completely. I led a very backwards life up to the age of 18. I was brought up in a remote part of Scotland and went to a crazy Roman Catholic fundamentalist boarding school in the North Yorkshire Moors. It was a very insular and British education. And travelling and arriving in India at the age of 18 just changed everything completely. Every aspect of my life – my tastes in food, in music, in architecture and art – has changed by travel.
Would you say it was down to the act of travelling itself or is there something about India that made you recalibrate the way you see things?
It’s a good distinction you’re making. I mean, India is now home, and so when I’m there, I’m not really travelling. It’s where I based myself since my 20s and it’s familiar. But when you first go to a country you don’t know, it does make you naked. It unravels you. It makes you vulnerable. It opens you up to new experiences. It makes you available for being dazzled and for love at first sight. You become vulnerable to that place, for better or worse. Which is
why you can get badly hurt in different ways travelling. Also, you can have the most ecstatic moments of your life on the road.
What’s the best travel advice that you ever received?
I don’t know what the best travel advice I’ve ever received, but the best travel-writing advice I ever received was from my hero, Bruce Chatwin, who was the great travel writer that I grew up idolising. He said that when taking notes for travel writing, don’t try to write finished prose. Don’t try to write a gorgeous description in your notebook, just get the detail down. Colours, smells and impressions.
In addition to travel writing, you are renowned for your history books. What period do you wish you could live in?
About 1730 and 1830, between the fall of the Mughals and before the Raj got going. In that period, there’s inter-marriage, there’s a great deal of cultural cross-fertilisation. There’s no kind of scientific lead in either direction. So, for example, British astronomers are finding that Muslim astronomers know about some of the moons of Saturn they don’t know about. Equally, Muslim theologians are fascinated by Christian theology and so there’s dialogue and discussion and equality. There was certainly mutual respect in a way that doesn’t happen either before or after.