YOU’RE UNLIKELY TO find “historian” on any of those Top 10 World’s Most Dangerous Jobs lists – but it has its moments. A few years ago, having given a lecture in a setting not noted for its patience and tolerance, William Dalrymple, gong-laden author, broadcaster, literary festival co-founder, Sufi music aficionado and scholar of the Indian kaleidoscope, almost found himself ventilated by a variety of ordnance at a particularly perilous checkpoint.
“There was a big party after the lecture, in Bethlehem, and at 10pm I was crossing back into Israel to spend the night in Jerusalem,” says Dalrymple. “I’d had a drink and was staggering around slightly; I had a bag over my shoulder with all my slides in it.
“The arc light was beaming down and I was halfway across this open space when someone started shouting at me in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. I put my hands up and walked very slowly and calmly forward – then this Arab-Israeli guy said, ‘I just saved your life. They were shouting at you to put your bag down and if you went any further they’d shoot. They had their guns primed and aimed at you.’ They’re very trigger-happy at those crossings.”
Not that Dalrymple, 50, hasn’t been shot at during the course of researching various books: Kandahar and Kashmir saw bullets fly (time to rethink that top 10?) But – West Bank wipe-out averted – he was restored to his farm outside Delhi, where he can be found nine months a year, and continued to do what comes naturally: write books that seem to attract major prizes as magnets do iron filings. That tradition began with Dalrymple’s first, In Xanadu (1989, Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award), for which he retraced Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to today’s Inner Mongolia – and which was written by a precocious student of 22. Four books in, Dalrymple ditched travel (albeit travel with a hefty dose of history) for historical narrative; not that he could shake off the awards ceremonies. White Mughals (2003, the Wolfson Prize; Scottish Book of the Year), The Last Mughal (2006, Duff Cooper Prize for history) and Nine Lives (2009, Asia House Literary Award) were among subsequent volumes, every book in the Dalrymple canon being festooned with garlands of some description.
Coming soon is what promises to be an epic treatment of the life and questionable times of Britain’s East India Company: The Anarchy: How a Corporation Replaced the Mughal Empire, 1756-1803. Writing in The Guardian recently, Dalrymple introduced the overwhelmingly topical topic (multinational corporation, protected by a private army overseas and a government at home, subdues and plunders a subcontinent) in a long essay – and was enthused by readers’ responses.
“I was very encouraged by the viral reaction,” says an amazed Dalrymple. “Seventy thousand shares and more than half a million views, which is more than for anything I’ve ever written! That was the first outing that research had had but it was also me writing my synopsis.
“I was worried about this book for various reasons: it’s much bigger and on a larger timescale than anything before. White Mughals, The Last Mughal and Return of a King all have tight timelines, two to three years; this is 60, with a vast cast of characters, which makes the writing more difficult. It also has economics, which is not my natural forte.”
It remains to be seen whether The Anarchy will enjoy a shelf-life approaching that of White Mughals, on one hand the story of British political and military expansion in India, on the other an account of how the country’s new rulers became “Indianised”.
“I’ve just come back to Delhi from Hyderabad, where we were filming a BBC special in advance of the movie next year,” says Dalrymple. With Ralph Fiennes directing and Game of Thrones’ Frank Doelger as producer, it promises to be a silver-screen spectacular. “I don’t think you can do White Mughals other than as a big production,” says its author. “With battles, intrigue, palaces, it’s an incredibly complicated story and it’s been waiting for someone with enough resources to make it properly. It’s a book I wrote a long time ago, but it’s weird how books are like children: you put in the final full stop, send to the publisher and they’re more or less out of your control. You never know what they’re going to do next. This book, as with children – they go quiet, then suddenly they’re all over the place.
“This one has come back to life after 12 years! When it first came out there were immediate stage and film offers and now they’re all coming together – there’s also a play, directed by Tim Supple, that’s going off round Britain next year.”
Since 2006, Dalrymple’s alter ego has been co-director and co-founder of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. And as often as not he appears at the festival as a moderator or panel guest. The JLF, as it is increasingly becoming known, is one of the world’s biggest, most popular and high-spirited book lovers’ jamborees; but when asked if it’s that for which he is most well known, he reacts with mock horror and his trademark hearty laughter.
“I certainly hope not!” he says. “I hope it’s for my books, even though the writing – not the research – I find a genuine slog. Jaipur is famous but I don’t think I am, particularly. It’s grown from nothing and at the moment it’s not unmanageable: it takes up about three months, November to January, and it’s a low drone the rest of the year. I can still do it and function as a writer. What I’m slightly worried about is that we now have these satellite festivals in London and Colorado and that is a bit of a tipping point. I’m worried that if we franchise it – I’m using the word incorrectly – around the world it’ll become a full-time job. That’s not something I’m going to keep up along with my writing.”