New Delhi, Oct 20 : There are times when asking the obvious just cant be helped. And of course, author William Dalrymple is bound to laugh when quizzed about what continues to fascinate him about India even after living here for decades.
"Yes, nobody has stopped asking me this. For a writer and photographer, it's like being a kid in a candy shop who never fails to get awed," smiles Dalrymple, who has been in the country ever since the age of 18 in different avatars - history teacher, journalist and now writer and photographer.
While exhibiting his latest black and white photographs titled 'The Historian's Eye' at Vadehra Art Gallery, which he took during the research for his recently launched book 'The Anarchy The Relentless Rise of East India Company', published by Bloomsbury, Dalrymple insists that going back to photography has been extremely satisfying for him.
"Especially after I discovered the wonders of a good mobile phone camera, which allows guerrilla photography. As a teenager, I would spend almost all my time in the darkroom, experimenting with black and white. For someone like me, who has always admired works of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, it is important that I capture my subjects with a non-intrusive small camera and not a heavy large format one that can make the other person very conscious, thereby resulting in a studio like image. I would any day prefer to get that elusive captured second. What is lost in definition with a small camera is gained in immediacy."
And why black and white in a country with so much colour? "Let's not forget this is also a country of extraordinary lines, shapes and geometry. Black iamp; white brings out the magic in architecture and landscape, and the strangeness of reality. More importantly, it makes you stop, look at it again."
Even as his readers keep walking in to get their copies of signed, it's tough not to talk about the aspect of Indian collaboration with the East India company, he has written about in 'Anarchy' --- something much ignored in Indian history textbooks.
"Yes, just the same way British textbooks don't like to talk about the loot, plunder and asset stripping by the East India Company. Let's not forget that we live in a world that seems to have mythologised history. At the moment, the accounts in the history textbooks of the two countries give a totally different version of things. When I give a lecture in Britain, I emphasise on the loot and the plunder. After all, the East India Company was all about profit and wasn't here for some civilizational project. Someone like me is in a great position to see that," he said.
He insisted that the Raj, which was in India for only 90 years, has dominated the modern Indian memory, but the East India Company, which exploited the country from 1599 to 1858, till the crown took over, seems to be completely forgotten.
"The Company hardly appears in popular culture. One seldom sees movies about East India Company except say 'Junoon', 'Mangal Pandey' or Ismail Merchant's 'The Deceivers'. There may be loads of films made about the Mughals, and quite a bit about the Raj, but almost nothing about the period in between --- and this is the period I am exploring. If you were to write it as fiction, people won't even believe it.
"This is a tale so improbable. It's a story of one London office block, five windows wide, 200 yards of street frontage, which in the 100 years of its history only employed 30 people as permanent staff in its head office, but managed to take over the richest country in the world.
"When the company was founded, Britain was producing around 3 per cent of the world GDP. India was producing about a third of world GDP --- about 37 per cent, and had just overtaken China in industrial production. How on earth does this company manage the coup? That's why I spent around six years researching to find out."
Stressing that 'The Anarchy' is a history of incredible audacity --- 2000 Britishers sitting in Bengal who borrowed money from Indian financers, trained an army of sepoys and used Indian capital and manpower to fight other Indians, he added " This tale is deeply evil and the audacity of it is simply astonishing. This is a story, which both sides try to forget because it is such a terrible tale."
Even as another reader approaches him, William laughs that for him writing is not really fun. "Well, researching is enjoyable, launching a book is. The anxiety and stress when you begin a book, all the expectations, and the prospect of not knowing how it is going to turn out can be quite trying. What if you wreck your reputation with it? Every time I write, I have dreams about bad reviews and wake up with nightmares of my books being banned, especially one week before the publication."While an entire generation may have been introduced to him through his travel writings like 'City Of Djinns', 'In Xanadu' and 'The Age of Kali', the author stressed that he doesn't really miss writing more in that genre. "That was me in my 20's, and I loved doing that then. But I wanted to go deeper rather than wider, that's why the kind of books I am writing that I writing now. What I am doing right now --- understanding and writing history --- this is where my heart was. As Dalrymple gets set to understand the cultural history of India in his next project, he says that he might try achieving that by understanding the history of Indian civilization through it's cities. "Maybe from Mohenjo Daro to Gurugram. But of course, I change my ideas every second month."
A trained Art Historian, Dalrymple's next book will be called 'Forgotten Masters Indian Paintings for the East India Company', which will focus on the 'Company School of Painters'.
"It's about Mughal painters who worked for company patrons and produced the last great works of Mughal paintings, responding to European influences while ascertaining that their artistic vision was kept intact," he said.
Insisting that for every writer things become significant when seen through his own prism, Dalrymple said that the same holds true for history too.
"Now there was a time when the East India Company became complexly bankrupt. Instances of it taking loans and lobbying are strikingly similar to our times and leap out of the page because in the times we are living in, this is what we are seeing. We tend to include things that are contemporary in their essence. Subsequent experience changes the way we look at the past. Each generation has to write history anew. The facts also change; for example, new discoveries in the archives completely alter the perspective. Of course, you are aware what previous historians have written, but then you go out yourself and dig up new material," he concluded.
(Sukant Deepak can be contacted at email@example.com)