In conversation with William Dalrymple


1)      Here's an interview I did with William Dalrymple on his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. 'Willie' spoke on a range of other subjects during the course of this interview and I'll be transcribing it soon and adding those bits here. In the mean time, enjoy this.

        What does the word ‘sacred’ mean to you? Has its meaning got diluted in today’s world?

The reference in the title to the word ‘sacred’ means, to me, seekers of the divine in all its glorious variety.  I’d like to state two things at the outset this is not a book of theology; I’m not setting out on a theological exercise here and I’m certainly not setting out on a personal devotional quest where I’m looking for a guru or anything.  What I’m trying to do in this book is to see how these various secret traditions have changed with India’s massive vortex of change. How has the new India Shining – in all its flawed regional variety and lack of consistency – affected these range of traditions. As everyone should know, Hinduism isn’t a  monolithic block which barely existed before the 18th century. Hinduism is something which is constantly changing; Hinduism of the Vedas is very different than that of the Puranas. There’s been the long, long process of change with 19th century reform movements. And now we have, what can be called the Rama-fication whereby mainstream reformed and possibly politicisation of cults are sweeping through the cowbelts at the expense of local devi cults

2)      This politicisation you refer to, has it been imposed or has it been naturally embraced by the people?

What you have is common to both Hinduism and Islam is that you get reformed, mainstream, textual, urbanised forms of religion taking over from folk deities and saints who come to be regarded as superstitious. In the case of Islam, you get a Gulf-propogated, madrassa­-taught, centralised Quranic Islam, slowly eating away saints’ shrines which are the  which are the mainstay of everyday Islam in India since the 12th century. And you see this process in Delhi in Nizamuddin East. You get out of the car and walk past the Tableeghi Jamaat they’ll embrace you sand say “come brother, don’t go to the saints’ shrine, come to the mosque”

3)      So in that case, if you were searching for the sacred in modern India, why did you have to go to far off places like Dharamsala or rural West Bengal? Why not in urban India itself?

(laughs) One of the personal quests of this book was to get the heck out of Delhi and libraries after 10 years based in the National Archives of India! But, on a more serious note, it was a very conscious thing to return to travel writing after 10 or 15 years and to get back on the road. But the question you’ve asked is very interesting and it reveals a lot about the questioner because there’s a tendency to think that only middle-class urban India has a legitimate story and that it’s somehow illegitimate to write about sadhus and bauls.  In almost all the interviews I’ve given, I’ve had to justify writing about these people.

4)      It’s not illegitimate . It’s just that the phrase modern India throws up images of urban India hence..
Well not illegitimate but a central subject.  There are these small pockets of hypermodernity like Gurgaon, cyberabad, Bangalore.  But it isn’t just that. There’s lots more happening in the areas that are stuck between tradition and modernity; which isn’t, by any sense, an unchanging R K Narayan rural landscape of pretty girls in sarees, wandering along roads. It is a messy halfway house with all sorts of things happening.  For instance, Swamimalai, which is less than a day’s drive and within sight of Thomas Friedman India and what it represents, you have a small town businessman, who’s been doing business for 35 years.  He’s a member of the local Lion’s club, a pillar of the local establishment. But he finds that his son wants to go off to Bangalore and study javascript. Even the most extreme figure in the book – the naga sadhu drinking from the skull ­– turns out to be from a middle-class family in Kolkata, his son is an accountant for Tata and his wife used to work in a jute factory. So, we all see these guys as exotic but the reality is that they’re not.  They have human lives, cousins, aunts, friends, marriages, family businesses etc.  And one of the motives of this book is to give a human face to these ‘freaks’.
5)      But what made them turn to or embrace religion in such an extreme form?
This is the central question in the book and there are 9 different answers to that.  A fair number of people such as the bhopa of Rajasthan, the idol maker or the Theyyam dancer inherited family lineages which have been going on for generations.  Others made personal choices to embrace religious lives such as the Buddhist monk. But many of them went to religion in reaction to huge personal losses and tragedies such as the red fairy.

6)      A striking feature of this book is that most of the prose is reported speech from the people you’ve interviewed. Your own narration has been marginal. Was that a difficult thing to do – to marginalise your narration and let your interviewees do the talking?
It was something I hadn’t done before and I had to find a way to do it in the literary sense.  But it seemed an entirely appropriate way to tackle this subject. It also allowed me to get around what was the reason I hadn’t done this book before which is how to avoid the minefield of clichés that litter Western attempts at writing Indian religion. It seemed to me that the only way to tackle this subject was to be reserved and let these guys speak for themselves. They had such stories that my earlier plan of writing an A to B travelogue was immediately abandoned in favour of a very different form which I’m rather pleased with. Non-fiction short stories are a very interesting thing to attempt.
7)      You started working on Nine Lives which is a travel book after two thick books on Mughal history White Mughals and The Last Mughal. Was it difficult to re-adapt to travel writing after such a long gap?
No it was a huge pleasure. I’m naturally a restless man, I like to travel. I don’t like to be stuck inside a library for months on end. The actual process of writing these big, fat history books is extremely painful. To write those sort of books requires eight months to a year of not moving around. Also, writing books on such a subject (Mughal history) requires a lot of research.  With travel books, you can just pack up a little suitcase and wander off. For instance, I wrote one of the chapters in Nine Lives on a Sri Lankan island. If I tried doing that with the other two books, I’d probably need a truck to carry all my papers and files to wherever I’m going! Also, the form allowed me to go to parts of India I’d never seen before – rural West Bengal for instance. It was the first part of India to be colonised but it’s so far off today that no one goes there.
8)     So, what next after Nine Lives? 
        Well I’ve been commissioned to do a big Mughal project but I don’t know what it’ll turn out to be.
9)      Will it be based on the life of Dara Shikoh?
It was going to be Dara Shikoh and Akbar before that. However, Akbar was illiterate so he didn’t write anything and I’d have to look at him through the eyes of a second person. Dara Shikoh is very interesting but it’ll be difficult to write about him because all we have is mystical writings which tend to be very elusive.  There’s also the book tour which will take me to England, Sydney Opera House and hopefully America. So I really can’t say what next

Any regrets, General? An Interview with Murtaza Razvi


Earlier this year, I reviewed Pakistani journalist Murtaza Razvi's lucid and informative biography of the former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf, Musharraf: The Years in Power. In this short interview, Razvi gives a glimpse of the man who ruled Pakistan for eight turbulent years.

In the introduction to your book, you write that Musharraf ruled Pakistan single-handedly. Do you think that dictators rule single-handedly or are there a set of people who help them rule that way?

Pakistani dictators, even elected leaders-turned-autocrats, are known to rule more single-handedly than their counterparts elsewhere. The army may have brought Musharraf to power (remember he was not even in Pakistan when the coup was staged), but once there, the process of consultation with his team of advisors, who were all of his own choosing, barely lasted a year or so. The army top brass, the corps commanders who had brought him to power, was shuffled. So whatever 'democracy' existed at the top military decision making level was also eroded. By teh end of Musharraf's tenure, he alone was the one calling the shots.   

You write that despite liberalising the Pakistani media, Musharraf started distrusting Pakistani journalists. Yet whenever he would come to India or go anywhere else, he'd pander to the media. Even the media (at least the Indian media) showers too much attention on him. Why these double standards?

The international media was certainly charmed by his frank, outspoken, behaviour. The media persons he chose to speak to back home were carefully screened and their questions taken well in advance so he comes out shining. Yes, he was all about applying double standards. At home he would censure you for speaking up on 'national security' issues and label you as 'unpatriotic'; abroad, he would divulge more damaging facts regarding extremism and terrorism than you could believe-- all in order to project what he called a 'soft' image of Pakistan instead of fixing the problems that gave the country a bad image; he also cosied up to foreign media to tell the world he was their best bet as the ruler of Pakistan.    

It would be a tad unfair to compare but did you observe any similarities/differences between Musharraf and Zia-u-Haq both as leaders and as persons?

Ziaul Haq was a hypocrite in the classical sense of the word, both as a person and a leader. Musharraf had unresolved contradictions in his charcter bordering on megalomania; he could do no wrong, and he was the ultimate self-styled messiah that he believed Pakistan needed.  

 One striking feature of the book is that you haven't interviewed Musharraf himself. Why? And was this a deliberate decision?

I tried to get through to him, through his family and friends. While the family never responded to my requests, certain friends told me on condition of anonymity that he was very crossed with Pakistani journalists at the time and would not wish to meet anyone. He felt betrayed, like a benevolent king, who had 'liberated' the media, only to find them awfully ungrateful and perhaps equally unpatriotic, as in acting on some foreign agenda. A sense of paranoia combined with arrogance informed this attitude on the part of the general. This is my frank assessment which I did not put down in so many words in the book for obvious reasons. The book was an objective quest at assessing Gen Musharraf's years in power and as such left me with little room for personal comments. I have not been wronged by him in any way, nor consider myself a biased journalist with malice against any leader.    

Do you think the Agra Summit was a hastily convened one considering Musharraf's tenure was only two years old at that time?

I think the time was right, but the Indian leadership failed once again to take advantage of the opportunity to settle issues with Pakistan. I say this because Musharraf was still popular with the Pakistani public at the time; there was no opposition from a parliament in Pakistan for Islamabad to have reneged on what he could have agreed to with Mr Vajpayee. But the BJP leadership got cold feet, and perhaps was more annoyed at his flambouyant overtures to the Indian media than it was worried about its mandate to hold a decisive dialogue with a one-man Government of Pakistan under Musharraf, which had the full political and military backing at the time to settle all outstanding issues with India. No elected government in Pakistan could have offered so much as Musharraf did to Delhi at the time.     

While you interview a cross-section of Pakistanis about Musharraf you haven't interviewed key players - namely people from the US and the UK, Indian officials and Saudi officials - about what they thought of Pervez Musharraf. Why so?

Time was of the essence. I had to complete the book within some odd three months after Musharraf's resignation. No one in his erstwhile administration wished to talk to me. Foreign key players also wanted to keep mum over the 'deal' that saw him step down. We delayed the book because I wanted to incorporate Indian leaders' interviews. I was denied the Indian visa when I finally approached the Indian high commission in Singapore in teh first week of February 2009 (I was on a fellowship in Singapore from Feb 1 to Apr 30); they just sat on my visa application forever.   

Do you think that during his eight year tenure, Musharraf had the chance to free his country from constant American interference but failed to do?

Musharraf could have done much more for Pakistan and for peace in South Asia but for his megalomania, starting with bravado, and the sense he had of his own indispensibility to the world without having earned it.    

Lastly, if you were to meet the former President for a one-on-one conversation, what would you like to talk to him about?

Any regrets, General?

My review of Razvi's book can be read here

Coming Soon


- A long conversation with William Dalrymple on his new book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

- A super short review of Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi

- And (hopefully) another Q&A with Murtaza Razvi on his biography of the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Watch this space!

Foodie Tales-2


Here's the link to Part -1

Rajdhani @ Inorbit Mall, Malad: Before Rajdhani opened, my usual quota of Gujju food came from such restaurants as Golden Star, Thackers and Samrat. But there's something about the Rajdhani grub that makes me go back there everytime I'm in Bombay. The food is mind-bogglingly delicious. I haven't tasted better khandvi or savoured a more delicious kadi anywhere else. Why, even a drink as simple as buttermilk is much more refreshing than at other places. But what sets Rajdhani apart from its bretheren is its service. The service starts as soon as you've taken your seat and you aren't made to wait for multiple helpings for more than two minutes - no matter how crowded the eatery is. What makes it even more special is that the waiters genuinely want to feed you. More often than not, I have wolfed down an extra poori or gulped down that extra glass of buttermilk simply because the waiter insisted (I also suspect that, given my lanky built, they thought I was famished). And it is this deadly combination of brilliant service coupled with lipsmacking food which makes me want to go there each time I visit Bombay.

P.S. I hate to write this but Rajdhani seriously needs to improve the grub at their Delhi branches. I mean, why would I want to eat rajma and cabbage at a Gujju eatery?

Cafe Britannia @ Fort: It's a non-descript place tucked away in a small bylane of Bombay's Fort area but its a landmark nonetheless. But ask any food-loving Bombayite about Britannia and they'll have a story to narrate. You'll be told about the eccentric old man who used to keep a murgi on his table and how he'll decide what you'll eat if he takes your order. Nearby officegoers and college kids will swear by the vast quantities of its berry pulao and dhansaak. For a relative outsider like me, the charm of Britannia lies in not one but a combination of all these things. Nowhere in the heart of Delhi will you find a neat, clean, affordable cafe serving enormous amounts of food at affordable prices. Nowhere in Delhi will you hear of quirky stories about cafe owners. And you definitely won't read a menu card which begins with the words "there is no greater joy than the joy of eating!". It's a shame that in my countless visits to Bombay over twenty years, I went to eat at Britannia in March this year. Since I was alone, I couldn't each much; just had to make do with the dhansak. But during the August leg of my trip I wolfed down their signature dish, the berry pulao, and I must say it beat the dhansak hands down. Another addition to my list of favorite restaurants.

Shatranj Napoli @ Bandra: Back in the days when the 'burbs weren't as hip as they are today, Bandra used to be the place to hang out. And Shatranj Napoli one of the most popular eateries in the area. You could spot the odd film-star or page-3 type at an adjacent table or the usual filmy crowd hanging around Shatranj. But that's not how I remember the place. As a young boy, I used to relish their Paprika Chicken/Fish. Come to think of it, the dish is a complete no-brainer. Basically, its fingers of fish or chicken drowned in  a creamy mayonnaise sauce with a hint of red paprika to add some flavour. It's essentially an Indian dish marketed as a continental one. Nevertheless, it got Shatranj its patrons - until they found better alternatives.

Trishna@ Fort and now opposite the Fame Adlabs mall in Andheri: It is to Bombay what The Big Chill cafe is to Delhi. Ask any outsider or first time visitor to Bombay where they'd like to eat and Trishna will surely be one of the answers. Lonely Planet - that bible of all books for firang hitchhikers - recommends it I'm not surprised why. It's perhaps the only restaurant which does a pomfret tikka (and the softest one at that). Their Hyderabadi dal (whose provenance has been doubted by a certain Mr. Vir Sanghvi) is sure to blow your socks off. Made of three dals and topped with a dash of tadka it's the most delicious veggie dish I've eaten at a seafood restaurant. It's popularity can be gauged from the fact that it's opened outlets as far as London and that, on a given day, you'll find a horde of people waiting outside for a table. Once, a cousin and me went for dinner to the Fort branch (after reserving a table, thankfully) at 10 P.M. for dinner and by the time we got out 45 minutes later the crowd had swelled. And it was a weekday. So if you're visiting Trishna you know what to eat and what to do. 

P.S. In case you're going to the Andheri branch, do order the crab chettinad which is so much better than the oily, greasy and overrated butter pepper garlic crabs. Also, this one is much more comfortable and spacious than the original Fort branch.

Sheetal Samudra@ JVPD: Actually, this restaurant-cum-bar doesn't exist at JVPD any longer (although the original one at Khar is still there, I'm told). Story goes that a hotel is being built where this rather filmy eatery once stood. But, that doesn't stop me from reminiscing about the place. Long before, I started frequenting Trishna, Gajalee, Mahesh Lunch Home or any other seafood restaurant in Bombay, I got my first taste of crabs and Lobsters at Sheetal. Their Crab Chilly was the softest crab dish I've ever had and they did a neat Tandoori Lobster. But the one dish that made me go back there again and again was the Flat Prawns in Sichuan Sauce. Before you start tracing the dish's Chinese origins, let me tell you that this is completely Indian. Any self-respecting Chinaman would probably kill the inventor if he ever heard about its creation. Basically, a flat piece of prawn is drowned in a fiery chilly sauce and served piping hot at your table. You should, ideally, eat it with steamed rice but a few bravehearts I know at the dish as it is. That their tummies revolted the next morning is another matter but I guess you get the drift. However, it seems I can only reminisce about all of this. Unless of course, the proprietors decide to re-open it somewhere in Bombay.

That's it for now. Must go and edit SOP. There *might* be a part-3 too but I'm guessing you guys must be fed up of two posts already. So, I'll spare you the miseries for now.