Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:
Click on the festival website and the first name that comes up is William Dalrymple: ‘the author of seven acclaimed works of history and travel, including The City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the bestselling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson, and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New Statesman and The Guardian. He published Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India to great acclaim in October 2009, and the book went straight to the top of the Indian bestseller list. He is a director of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival.’
I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India? More:
…And William Dalrymple takes exception to the piece:
“The piece you ran is blatantly racist”
After all, I am hardly a pampered expat on a three-year expenses-paid stint. I have lived in this country on and off for more than 25 years—most of my adult life since I first came here in 1984—and have done so on the hard-earned royalties of my books. I have now written five books on India which, whatever their many failings, surely represents a serious commitment of time, work and love to this country.
I conceived, co-founded and co-direct the DSC Jaipur Lit Fest, which is now the largest in the Eastern half of the globe, and brings fine writers together in 12 of India’s 22 official languages. Thanks to the funding we work hard to raise, it does so entirely for free, for anyone who loves literature, in addition to which we raise money to provide bursaries for those who can’t afford it to attend from across India. To date, I and my co-director Namita Gokhale have been paid little more than expenses for this labour of love, which now takes up about a quarter of our year.
Over two-thirds of the writers I and Namita invite are desi. The British contingent, Brown, Black and White, make up a minority within the minority of the firangi contingent. This year our two keynote international speakers are Turkish and South African, and our special subjects are literature from India’s Northeast, from Palestine/Israel, and from the region now known as Af-Pak. The idea that this joyously multi-vocal festival, which has fought hard to promote Dalit, bhasha and minority literature, represents some sort of colonial hangover is both ignorant and extremely offensive, not just to me but to the whole team who labour to make it happen, and to the sponsors who donate funds to make it possible to present the writers without charge.
So why publish a snide and malicious piece that casually rubbishes both my work and the literary mela I helped to found, by someone who has never once attended the festival? More:
…and below, Bal joins issue:
Does Dalrymple know what racism really is?
I will ignore the snide remarks and innuendos that so liberally dose his letter, restraining my urge to reply in Punjabi, but I will answer a charge that cannot be glossed over—the charge of racism. This is the second instance recently that we at Open have been subjected to the argumentum ad hominem: Barkha Dutt and some of her supporters have suggested that the case against her was rooted in misogyny, and now William (his letter does imply we are on first-name terms), who has stated that my original article was ‘blatantly racist’. It is a serious charge, designed to deflect attention from the real issue. In elaborating this charge, William exposes the weakness of his case when he states: ‘If anyone was to suggest that Amit Chaudhuri shouldn’t judge the Booker Prize, or direct Britain’s leading creative writing course, because he was too Bengali… it would be regarded as blatantly racist.’
This is a complete misstatement of my premise. The equivalent of what I said would be the claim that ‘the fact that Amit Chaudhuri, a Bengali, judges the Booker Prize’ says something about the British literary scene. Of course, it does: it says something positive about a literary arena that had long been marked by exclusion. In the same way, I have claimed that William’s centrality (whether in Jaipur or otherwise), especially considering how he defines himself, says something about the Indian literary scene, except here it says something negative because the Indian and British literary scenes are not equivalent. The Indian literary scene is marked by a clear sense of inferiority to the British scene, and continues to be beholden to it. For this very reason William becomes a symbol of what is wrong with our literary life. More in Open