The art of travel writing has helped to both uncover parts of the world that few people have visited and add a new perspective to previously well-trodden paths. Throughout history, people have been writing about their trips and recounting their stories to others, but it was only during the last century that travel writing became a finely tuned skill.
The British have been perhaps some of the most enthusiastic travellers of this period, with notable names like Wilfred Thesiger, DH Lawrence, Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Leigh Fermor regaling their readers with incredible adventures and remarkable insights into far-flung lands.
However, a figure to emerge only during the last 25 years should also be mentioned as part of that illustrious literary company: historian and travel writer William Dalrymple has carved out a career as one of his generation’s most insightful writers. Born in Scotland in 1965, he went on to study history at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Dalrymple’s work is written with his own style of relaxed humour, often transforming a regular scene into one far more vivid and intriguing
Dalrymple’s career has been somewhat unique, in that he has combined his skill as a historian with a deep-rooted enthusiasm for world travel. In fact, his career has seen him write three major works of travel literature, each of which has been littered with real history, followed by a further trilogy of history books.
During his career, Dalrymple has perhaps become most known for his passion for all things to do with the Indian subcontinent. He is now widely regarded as his generation’s foremost expert on the history of British rule in the region.
Following the Silk Road
Dalrymple’s first book was written while he was still at university. Titled In Xanadu: A Quest, the book recounts the summer he spent following in the footsteps of the 13th century Italian merchant Marco Polo, who was famous for travelling along the Silk Road between Jerusalem and Shangdu (also known as Xanadu) in Inner Mongolia.
Beginning at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Dalrymple’s aim was to transport a vial of holy oil all the way to Mongolian King Kubla Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu. The journey stretched across the breadth of the Middle East, including across a then extremely hard to access Iran, up through Pakistan, Central Asia, and into China.
In total, the trip took four months to complete and saw 22-year-old Dalrymple encounter many different landscapes, cultures and religious ceremonies. He also explored the histories of the ancient cities that he passed through, while comparing them to their current political climates. The book itself is written with his own style of relaxed humour, often finding ways to transform a regular scene into one far more vivid and intriguing.
The book was widely praised upon its release, winning a number of literary awards. Leigh Fermor, one of the most acclaimed travel writers of the last century, heaped praise on it in a review for The Spectator, making it his book of the year: “William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu carries us breakneck from a predawn glimmer in the Holy Sepulchre right across Asia”, he wrote. “It is learned and comic, and a most gifted first book touched by the spirits of Kinglake, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh.”
An exploration of India
Dalrymple would follow up In Xanadu with the 1994 book City of Djinns; an account of his time spent living in Delhi. Although Dalrymple himself lived in the city for six years, the narrative covers only a single year so as to show how the capital changes with the seasons. Such is his love for the city, Dalrymple has lived partly in Delhi since 1989, travelling to London and Edinburgh for the summers.
In the past, he has described Delhi as having a “bottomless seam of stories”. The book is spent exploring the many different fragments of Delhi’s history and culture, meeting a number of colourful characters along the way, from whirling dervishes to eunuch dancers.
Dalrymple also delves into the various historical events that have struck the city, including the violent 1857 mutiny against the British Empire, the massacres that hit during Partition in 1947, and the riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
Throughout the 1990s, Dalrymple’s writing assignments and expeditions in India led to his third book, The Age of Kali. Over several years, Dalrymple travelled throughout the country exploring a number of controversies and troubles occurring across the Indian subcontinent, collating a series of travel essays based on his experience. These were tied into a period known as the Kali Yuga, a Hindu belief that there will be a time when the world will be consumed with strife.
Among the stories recounted in the book is the 1992 massacre of high caste Bihar citizens by those from the lower caste. Another is the murder of a teacher in Lucknow’s La Martiniere College. Dalrymple also looked at an Indian rapper, Baba Sehgal, who came from Bombay, as well as the glitzy music and film business that thrives in the city. An exploration of the Portuguese-influenced city of Goa and its Christian heritage also follows.
Some of the most interesting tales from The Age of Kali involve Dalrymple’s time spent in Pakistan meeting high-profile political figures. Profiling then Pakistani Prime Minister Banazir Bhutto in 1994, he provided a fascinating account of her extremely glamorous lifestyle. In 1989, he interviewed former Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan, at a time when Khan was still playing but approaching the end of his illustrious sporting career. Dalrymple interviewed him again in 1996, just as Khan was embarking upon a new career in politics.
Drawing from the past
Dalrymple’s later work has involved a number of historical studies based around stories and events that took place within the Indian subcontinent: White Mughals is his account of a true love story between a British army officer and a Hyderabadi noblewoman, while The Last Mughal explores the fall of the Mughal dynasty in 1857. As with many of Dalrymple’s other works, White Mughals has since been developed into an acclaimed BBC documentary, titled Love and Betrayal in India: the White Mughal.
Dalrymple’s latest book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, investigates the British Empire’s failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842, with a keen focus on the parallels that can be drawn between that period of time and the more recent war in Afghanistan.
In a 2014 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Dalrymple spoke of the similarities between today’s situation in Afghanistan and what occurred in his book. “President Karzai, the man we put in this time, is from the same tiny sub-tribe as Shah Shuja, the guy we put in the 1840s. We more or less put the same guy in twice. And the guys who brought down Shah Shuja in 1839, the eastern Ghilzai tribe, are today the foot soldiers of the Taliban. There is this extraordinary sensation of the same war being fought, and refought.”
Throughout his literary career, Dalrymple has been able to carefully investigate moments of a country’s past with the precision of a skilled historian, while at the same time drawing important parallels to more recent events. His passion for India and the surrounding region has brought to Western readers an insight that had previously not been achieved, and so his place among the world’s top travel writers is surely assured.