Book Box: William Dalrymple: The man with a foot in both camps - Hindustan Times

Book Box: William Dalrymple: The man with a foot in both camps

Jan 13, 2024 11:13 PM IST

The founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival on growing up in Scotland and why you should go to the JLF

Dear Reader,

William Dalrymple( ( pic courtesy William Dalrymple) PREMIUM
William Dalrymple( ( pic courtesy William Dalrymple)

Everybody loves William Dalrymple. Readers rave about his City of Djinns, book clubs swoon over his Nine Lives. Authors anxiously await his approval, and with it, fingers crossed, a call to the most spectacular literary festival on Earth.

If you are among those who have been invited to his farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi, where he lives with his artist illustrator wife Olivia and their three children, and if you can say ‘Willie was saying...’, you have truly arrived in literary life.

Since his arrival in India at the age of 19, Dalrymple has been hailed as an Indophile and only rarely rejected as an imperialist interloper. He wears a multitude of hats, author, historian, reviewer, podcaster, curator and the most famous face of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The festival is scheduled for Feb 1-5 this year. In a fortnight, authors and readers from all over the world will pack their bags to head to JLF 2024. Among them are Pulitzer prizewinning Hernan Diaz, International Booker prizewinning Georgi Gospodinov, Perumal Murugan and Patrick Radden Keefe.

Festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale will be at the centre of this literary luxuriance. Dalrymple will also be in conversation with Swapna Liddle and Rana Safvi on the history of the city of Shahjahanabad, with Kamini Dandapani and Anirudh Kanisetti on the Cholas, and with Tom Holland and Amit Varma on podcasts.

On a Monday evening, I speak to Dalrymple on a patchy WhatsApp call and am treated to a peppy mosaic of history, memoir and anecdotes around JLF. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

William Dalrymple (( pic courtesy William Dalrymple))
William Dalrymple (( pic courtesy William Dalrymple))

You grew up in Scotland. How did that influence your reading?

It's a very romantic place to grow up in – wild, hills and the sea very close, the Border Abbeys, Edinburgh Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots, all that sort of stuff was very much the background, the wallpaper of my upbringing.

Were your family readers?

My brothers were big readers. My parents less so. My father, although he was Virginia Woolf’s great-nephew, was more of a military man. And so although I have this very literary background, with James Prinsep, the translator of Ashoka’s edicts, on one side, and Virginia Woolf on another, my immediate parental background wasn’t particularly bookish.

I had a wonderful Scots nanny who was terrifically interested in history. She knew her Scots poetry, so Walter Scott and Robbie Burns were things that I learned in the cradle. She used to read me stories of Scottish keeps and castles, she probably is the origin of my interest in Iron Age Hillforts and castles on the coast of Scotland.

My father was a pillar of the establishment, honoured at Sandhurst (the military academy) but my nanny was half Scottish, half Irish, and brought me up to be deeply suspicious. I remember her reading me horrific stories from the potato famine and what the English did to the Irish. Redcoats, as she called them, the English army.

There were two very different versions of politics being sent to me as a child. And also, as a Scot, you grow with stories of the wars of Independence and Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. So everything around you leads you to be deeply suspicious of the English, the army, and the establishment.

If I’ve got sympathy for the underdog in imperial history, and in a sense, a foot in both camps, it's partly because of that upbringing, having this sort of semi-Fenian nanny, alongside a father who was British Army.

What was your early reading like?

Archaeology and History. It was an obsession from very early on. Edinburgh is a very bookish town and there were these fantastic bookshops - The Edinburgh Bookshop, and James Thin, my two childhood big bookshops. I used to sit there nerdily devouring all this stuff, and going to museums. My first ever trip to London from Scotland, at age seven, was to go and see the Tutankhamun exhibition. I begged my parents to go see it, because I was a mad keen would-be archaeologist, at that stage of my life. I was always more concerned with history and archaeology than fiction. And that, to this day, remains my great passion.

Jumping to literature festivals, what was the first festival you were struck by?

The festival that really kicked off the whole global literary festival movement was the Hay Festival. Peter Florence, who was my direct contemporary at Cambridge, did that, with his father in the late 80s. They managed to make headlines, with very eye-catching things, like flying in Bill Clinton by helicopter or Gabriel Garcia Marquez turning up. Long before I was invited to Hay, I was hearing stories about shenanigans with the great writers by Rushdie or Julian Barnes, it was headline stuff.

How did JLF begin?

I met Indian authors from all over the world. At Hay, in New York, but not in India. Occasionally, Amitabh Ghosh would turn up and do a book launch at the British Council or something. But there was no culture of literary festivals in India. Indian authors were more prominent and popping up with more fanfare abroad than they were here.

This was the period when, in rapid succession, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai were winning the Booker, and Vikram Seth wrote A Suitable Boy. The Empire was writing back. And yet it wasn't writing back here, they were writing back in Hay, or the New Yorker festival in New York, or the Sydney Writers Festival.

And I had just come back from my first really big international tour, which was withWhite Mughals in 2002. And I spoke at the Jaipur Virasat festival. And that was the first book event they did. And I said, you know, you should have more books, and we grew the festival out of the Virasat Festival, and then they moved off their dance and music to Jodhpur and we stayed on in Diggi Palace at the Jaipur Lit Fest. And that's how it began.

William Dalrymple (right) on stage at JLF 2023(Author)
William Dalrymple (right) on stage at JLF 2023(Author)

How did you attract authors in those days?

I think the key ingredient to our early success was the fact that we were in February, which is the most miserable month in America and Europe. There were no other festivals at that time. You promise people warmth, sunlight, palaces, beautiful music and good food, when they are looking out on drizzle or snow or blizzards, and it helps.

It's been 29 years since the first JLF. What’s your secret sauce for success?

No other festival I know has two directors. It's a huge strength that Namita Gokhale and I very rarely overlap in our interests. I'm a man, she's a woman. I'm from Europe, she's from here. She's a feminist.

I'm much more (pauses, and then laughs)… a man. I do the international list and more of the history, art and nonfiction. And Namita brings much of the bhasha and desi sensibility to it. And then Sanjoy K Roy organises everything.

There’s no mantra, it's pretty simple, if you produce the greatest writers in the world, people turn up. You get the greatest geniuses, the guys that won the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and the Sahitya Akademi awards, you get the hot new academics from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and St. Stephens. And you put them on for free, and people will come, you know.

For a reader, how would you say attending a lit fest compares with the experience of reading?

Well, the relationship between a book and a reader is a very personal and private one. And nothing, nothing can equal that, when you're deeply involved in the book, whether it's next to a fire or in bed or on a beach. That's the primary relationship.

But many writers are also great talkers. And the same kind of people that can weave wonderful narratives on a page, are often very good conversationalists. You get a whole new dimension by hearing a great author talk. It's particularly true of novelists- to hear someone like Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie speak, these are some of the greatest raconteurs I've ever come across. In a really good literary festival, it’s like being part of a dinner party with these people, and when they sit on the stage sparking off each other, and inspiring each other, and chatting with good humour with each other. It's a wonderful thing.


If this conversation with William Dalrymple has inspired you to attend the festival, or even if you are on the fence, check out the festival site. The schedule is now up. Many favourite books from this column feature in this year's sessions, with their authors in conversation - like Bonnie Garmus of the bestselling Lessons in Chemistry, Vivek Shanbhag of Ghachar Ghochar and Sakina’s Kiss fame, Angela Saini on her groundbreaking The Patriarchs, Ben Macintyre on his spy stories and the prolific Patrick Radden Keefe. Also, novelists Nilanjana S Roy and Devika Rege, and old JLF favourites like Colin Thubron, Marcus du Sautoy and Gulzar.

Also, check out JLF Diaries 2023 to give you a taste of the festival. And find below a calendar of the different literary festivals in India, in the next two months.

And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

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