Story of Indian non-fiction is of late starters: William Dalrymple

There is hardly any Indian mention in the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Booker’s non-fiction counterpart.

By   |  Published: 13th Dec 2019  7:11 pm

India can easily put up a “world beating fiction 11” but its non-fiction 11 will struggle to be at the “top of the tournament”, says historian-author William Dalrymple, using an analogy from cricket to buttress his view that no academic in India dominates bestseller lists.

Listing authors such as VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh, he said Indians, ethnic not necessarily Indian citizens, often win or make it to the Booker Prize shortlist. However, there is hardly any Indian mention in the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Booker’s non-fiction counterpart.

“The whole story of Indian non-fiction is of late starters. For example, there have been only two Indians who so far made it to the prize’s list, that too the longlist, Samanth Subramanian for his Sri Lanka book (This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan Civil War) and Ramachandra Guha for his cricket book (A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport). That is it,” Dalrymple said.

Samuel Johnson Prize, now called Baillie Gifford Prize, is an annual British book prize for the best non-fiction writing in English. “… while one can easily think of India putting up a world beating fiction 11, its non-fiction 11 would struggle real hard to be at the top of the tournament,” explained the Scottish writer who has made India his home.

Contrary to India, bestsellers in countries like the US and the UK include any number of “new biographies” or “scholarly non-fiction work” written in accessible language, said Dalrymple, whose new book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And the Pillage of an Empire has recently been published.

He cited the example of literary historian and Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt’s biography of William Shakespeare, Will in the World, was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. He also won the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction in 2012 and the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011 for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

“Greenblatt, who is also coming to Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this year, is a Harvard professor of English but his book about Renaissance was number one in the NYT bestsellers list for six months. Now, I think I am right in saying that there is no one in India like that who has a senior position in academia but also who writes at a level that it dominates the bestseller list,” Dalrymple said.

Is there any go-to style book for writing non-fiction or history? There are a “million different ways” to write history and no one can tell you which one is better, Dalrymple replied. “As a historian when you have done your five years of primary research you have a choice whether to write in academic language for hundred of your colleagues or you could write in fluid prose, literary English in order to appeal to the same intelligent audience that reads Rushdie, Roy, Ghosh or Vikram Seth. It is the choice of historian and I am not for once saying that my history is better or worse, or more morally sound than anyone else’s,” he clarified.

Dalrymple added that his writing template is inspired from English historian Stephen Runciman, best known for his three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–54). He said he is optimistic about the new crop of history tellers who will hopefully be the “harbinger of change” in non-fiction writing in India.

“Though some of them are from outside academia, they (the writers) are certainly coming up, be it Parvati Sharma (Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal), Ira Mukhoty (Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire) or Manu S Pillai (Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore),” he said.

He also described US-based Ruby Lal, author of Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, as a “great crossover”. Presently awaiting the release of his edited book Forgotten Masterpieces: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Dalrymple has already starting working on his next subject, which he said would be a “sweeping art history of India”.”See all of this can change tomorrow, but in current form it is titled, History of Indian civilization in 21 cities: From Mohenjo Daro to Gurgaon. Sorry, Gurugram,” he corrected.