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Unveiling Stories of Myriad Manifestations of Indian sub-continent with reference to Select Works of William Dalrymple’s Travel Literature


Tanbir Shahnawaz

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Rishi Bankim Chandra College

Naihati, North 24 Parganas

West Bengal, India



India has always been a curiosity to writers across Indian subcontinent. One such well-known and accomplished writer is William Dalrymple, born in Britain but lives in India, a prolific writer and popular art historian. He is popularly acknowledged for his travel writings and historical narratives. In the area of journalism also he is quite active. Through this paper an try has been made to look at keenly and to apprehend the more than a few elements of Indian existence that is so variegated and rich in its historical, regular and cultural heritage. The conscious attempt at immersion in subcontinental culture and the shift from observer to participant has seen an enlargement in author’s repertoire. Towards the end, this critical study find out about goals for exploring and decoding the historic and ethnographic modes as contributing to the polyphonic representation in his travel narrative. It is in the context of a cultural illustration grounded in a strong historical focus and emphasizing transculturality and syncretism, that the tour writing of William Dalrymple turns into specifically relevant; more especially his sustained ethno historical focus on the Indian subcontinent is valuable of indispensable study. The added objective is to understand the dramatic use of reminiscent language that sets the tone for tour writing which endeavours to take the reader on an experience throughout the length and breadth of the great geographical expanse of the subcontinent as Dalrymple comes throughout as the curious, learned and intrepid traveller who reports closely on what he observes and savours the first hand experience of unsafe locales, racy existence and a wealthy and diverse cultural heritage. This paper on Dalrymple’s works has aimed to explore the various aspects of life employed by the author in his writing. His writings are the result of thorough combing of archival materials which he has found in various libraries of India. He keeps himself abreast with the trends of writing academic history as well as art history. The paper examined Dalrymple’s three works: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993),   Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002). This paper critically analysed Dalrymple’s style of narration, use of rhetoric devices, his intention and strategies in writing the various aspects of life and portraying it realistically.

Keywords: Polyphonic, Travelogue, Architectonic, Orientalism, Anthropology 

Literature is the expression of the life of an individual and the society around him. The thoughts of an individual are seen through language in the form of literature. Literature and life are connected in an intimate way, which is dynamic. Even ordinary books become literature when they bring us into some relation with real life. Literature gets a universal appeal only when it is not just fantasy but goes beyond it by relating itself to life. The primary value of literature is its human significance and so literature should consist of the many events of life put together. Its value depends on the depth and breadth of the life that it paints. Literature changes according to the social changes that happen in history and so one can read the literature of a particular time in history in order to understand the life style of those people. Human personification and attitude towards life are related with their time and age. Human and moral values are changing according to their time and age. What was valuable two hundred years ago is now ignored, what will be ignored two hundred years later is very valuable now. But, literature portrays everything realistically. The characters depicted in the literature are the sample pieces of real human beings of its time. To understand the unique features and common manners of a society at a particular time, going through the characters and society depicted by the literature of the time is enough.

Dalrymple’s style of writing is governed by post-modernist characteristics. He explores a new style of writing history rather than the traditional one. From the present study, it becomes clear that though he keeps himself abreast with the trends of academic history by employing various primary and secondary source materials, his approach to historical facts and his manner of presentation is different. He goes with the new style of writing history which employs ‘narratives’. In other words, Dalrymple writes history in the style of a fiction writer who narrates the plot of a story. He is known for his travelogues and historical narratives. He is also very active in the field of journalism. Dalrymple’s major publications include: In Xanadu: A Quest (1989), City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993), From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997), The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters(1998), White Mughals: Love & Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (2002), The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (2006), Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2012). Dalrymple has written articles, reviews, and commentaries that have been published in The Times, The New Statesman, The Guardians, The New York Review of Books and The Washington Post. He has successfully hosted various television shows and has done many radio documentaries. Besides, he is a regular organizer of the popular DSC Jaipur Literary Festival. Hence, Dalrymple is known not only because of his published historical works, but also for his active involvement in other literary fields.

Dalrymple does not employ fiction while handling history. His writings are known for intersecting history with his personal experiences and depicts the various aspects of life through his writing. He figures as a character and narrator in his texts. He experiments with various genres which include: travelogue, history, and collection of essays. Dalrymple is involved in writing narrative history. He leaves no stone unturned to get as many details as possible on the subject he is writing about. His works White Mughals and The Last Mughal are a result of his thorough research.

Dalrymple’s main focus is not orientalism but its traits are still visible in his works. Gramsci says that a set of ideology and institution always influence the people who live it. A person’s identity is formulated in the context of his surrounding political, social and cultural atmosphere. It is called cultural hegemony. These sets of ideologies silently creep into the writings and are represented by the writer. William Dalrymple’s works can be classified as Non- fiction as his writings are more informative than fictional. Chris Anderson has used the term “literary nonfiction” which includes the essay, new journalistic writings, personal and informative write ups. Non-fiction is based on real life situation and experiences and it connotes truth for the general readers. But in literary analysis, it can be subjected to different critical approaches.

This paper has aimed to explore the various aspects of life employed by the author in his writing. His writings are the result of thorough combing of archival materials which he has found in various libraries of India. He keeps himself abreast with the trends of writing academic history as well as art history.

Three works of Dalrymple’s have been discussed here : City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993),  Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002). This study critically analysed Dalrymple’s style of narration, use of rhetoric devices, his intention and strategies in writing the various aspects of life and portraying it realistically. 

Dalrymple’s texts are fine examples of multiple genres intersecting each other. His works attract all kinds of readers whether they are lovers of history, romantic tales or travelogues. He shifts his works between genres, modes, and medium, hence, the structure of his work becomes very complex. His texts show an engagement with colonial discourses and his attempt to rewrite history from a new perspective. Dalrymple’s style of writing history can be categorized as narrative history. It is different from the academic style of history writing. Narrative history writing allows the writer to present factual details in an interesting and enthralling manner. Dalrymple attempted to write the kind of history books that he himself admires and enjoys. They are based on years of primary research. He had projected serious and genuine historical details in an appreciative literary style. This presentation of raw facts of the past in a novel and lively manner is commendable. Dalrymple’s narratives draw attention of historians and literary critics alike.

This paper has covered  the critical evaluation of City of Djinns (1994) by William Dalrymple. It is a special type of travel book. In general, travelogues narrate the routes and visiting locations and the writer’s own contemplations on such travels. But, the City of Djinns has stood aside in the sense that it documents his year long stay at this mysterious and marvellous city which stomached within it layers of historical changes and devastations, that increases the flavour of rich and striking history of India. William Dalrymple has claimed it to be “This book, the story of one year in Delhi, has taken nearly four times that long to complete. It has been a long haul and on the way I have incurred debts to a great number of people whom I must now thank”.(Acknowledgement, City of Djinns, page 9). He has described it as the most difficult cities he has ever been. Only at the age of seventeen William Dalrymple went to Delhi and fell in love with it in a jiffy, later after careful observation and critical documentation it gradually gave birth to a gripping book about the old city, now capital of India. An attractive portrayal of the old Indian capital of Delhi by a versatile genius Scottish travel writer, his first book of travel writing, In Xanadu   gained much commend. He stayed a year navigating around the broken-down city of Delhi unfolding the covers of history that was fixed in its architectonic and human destructions. In the Prologue Dalrymple says:

“I was only seventeen. After ten years at school in a remote valley in the moors of “North Yorkshire, I had quite suddenly found myself in India, in Delhi. From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.

Moreover the city—so I soon discovered—possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend.” (Prologue, City of Djinns, page 12) In the company of his wife, Olivia Fraser, who has helped him in completing the book, Dalrymple discovers Delhi a city which is still striving for passing over the devastations caused by British colonizers and the trauma of Partition in 1947, it was a kind of catastrophe for the peaceful city Delhi, it shattered all peace of the city. There is an exquisite account of Muslims’ migration from India to the newly-formed  Pakistan, also vivid account of  many Hindus, kicked out from Punjab, escaped to Delhi, formed  a new less refined class of inhabitants. The title signifies to the spirits that in opinions of legend have observed over the residents  of Delhi throughout the ages. In the course of the book Dalrymple has shown that much of the old beliefs and the folktales of djinns are now more, but after careful digging of history and analysis of public culture he is confirmed these old traditional beliefs are still alive in people’s mind, they are simply hidden.   At meticulously parcelling out layers of Indian history, Dalrymple suggests that Delhi as a unique city has frequently been able to confront devastations of war and withstand  other adversaries. He takes us graciously through the always busy and expansive city. He introduces us with variety of people, with the thrifty Punjabi inhabitants, now they form the majority of the populace. Thereafter, in an affable manner, we are introduced with the remainders of the old colonialists, next to the captivating ways of people of the underneath, such as the sorrowful and ordered lives of present-day eunuchs, the stubbornness of the illegal tenants. Most significant is the description of the eternal  world of the people  different  religions; Hindu, Muslim, Sikhs, Christians, Jains etc., who have gently   coexisted for many years in the shambolic  labyrinth of the unwreckable city. May be not the best work of Dalrymple, but this book is a pleasant surprise and a good starting point for the readers who are interested in this mysterious old city.  

Dalrymple’s next book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is about the curious nine lives of nine Indians. It is an assemblage of essays, each essay is a description of an Indian from different parts of the country and their relation to religious practices. The subtitle of the book ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, highlights  this point, and at the same time focussing  the kernel of Dalrymple’s to the sincere attempt through the word ‘search.’ The nine captivating characters who were the theme of Dalrymple’s are, the Jain nun from Sravanabelagola, the dancer of Kannur from Kerala (story of Hari Das, a Dalit man),  the daughter of Yellama from Belgaum, Karnataka, the singer of epics (Mohan Bhopa and his wife Batasi) from Rajasthan, the Red Fairy (story of Lal Peri, a  Muslim woman from Bihar), the Monk’s tale ( story of Tashi Passang, actually from Tibet but now in Dharamshala), the maker of idols ( story of Srikanda Satpaty from Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu), the lady twilight (story of Manisha Ma Bhairavi, from temple town of Tarapith in West Bengal ) and lastly the song of the blind minstrel ( story of the wandering singers or Bauls and the Baul tradition, story of Kanai Das and Debdas Baul, the cultural heritage of West Bengal ). Dalrymple has vividly evoked the ordinary yet curious, sad as well as happy lives of these Indian men and women from different parts of India. With his sharp eyes and beautiful writing we have been gifted  of his extraordinary travelogue about India. Like other books this too is a peculiar ensemble of journalism, culture, history, traditions, anthropology and religions. Dalrymple has evoked the village India so elegantly.


Dalrymple’s next book Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002) is a historical travelogue having a basis on the journals of Fanny Parkes.  She lived in India for 22 years from 1822 to 1846 and engaged herself as a prolific travel writer,  valorous, tirelessly inquisitive and resolutely independent. He penned down about Fanny Parkes in these following words:

“Parkes is an enthusiast and an eccentric with a burning love of India that imprints itself on almost every page of her book. From her first arrival in Calcutta, she writes how ‘I was charmed with the climate; the weather was delicious; and… I thought India a most delightful country, and could I have gathered around me the dear ones I had left in England, my happiness would have been complete.’ The initial intuition was only reinforced the longer she stayed in South Asia. In the twenty four years she lived in India, the country never ceased to surprise, intrigue and delight her, and she was never happier than when off on another journey under canvas exploring new parts of the country: ‘Oh! the pleasure,’ she writes, ‘of vagabondizing over India!’

Partly it was the sheer beauty of the country that hypnotised her. Indian men she found ‘remarkably handsome’, while her response to Indian nature was no less admiring: ‘The evenings are cool and refreshing … the foliage of the trees, so luxuriously beautiful and so novel, is to me a source of constant admiration.’ But it was not just the way the place looked. The longer she stayed in India, the more Fanny grew to be fascinated by the culture, history, flowers, trees, religions, languages and peoples of the country, the more she felt possessed by an overpowering urge just to pack her bags and set off and explore: ‘With the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli, e poi mori,” I beg to differ entirely,’ she wrote, ‘and would rather offer this advice – “See the Taj Mahal, and then – see the Ruins of Delhi. How much there is to delight the eye in this bright, this beautiful world! Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse], one might be happy for ever in India.

It is this sheer joy, excitement and even liberation in travel that Fanny Parkes manages so well to communicate.” ( Introduction Begums, Thugs and White Mughals, page 4) 

If we read her journals on India we will definitely get closer to the genuine  picture of early colonial India – “the sacred and the profane”, the turbulent and the pretty, the tight-laced British sahibs and the new whimsical "White Mughals" who fell in love with India, became indophile gradually.  They tried their best  like Fanny Parkes to establish bridges across cultures throughout India. 

Instead of confining himself to the traditional method of writing history, William Dalrymple has evolved a new style of writing history which combines characteristics of serious research with the elements of literature. As a trained art historian his works retain an interest in history along with a zest to rewrite the past. But at the same time, his literary bent of mind breathes life in his historical characters. They seem to come alive on the black and white pages of chronology and add colour through their presentation. They appear to enact the whole drama with an assertion on the veracity of facts and events. His spectacular ascent into literary paradise is probably unparalleled among many of the authors who are his contemporaries. His books collect essays on places and people, culture and tradition on or close to the subcontinent. He supplies precisely what his ardent readers expect of his writings.  He can very well be considered the greatest travel writer of his generation. 

Works Cited

Dalrymple, William. The Age of Kali. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

Dalrymple, William, City of Djinns: A year in Delhi. Penguin, 2003.Print.

Dalrymple, William, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India. Penguin, 2004. Print.

Dalrymple, William,  Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. New Delhi: Penguin

Books, 2009. Print.

Dalrymple, William,  Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes. Eland Books.2002. Print.