India is the story of migration…its cultural richness comes from that multiple layering: William Dalrymple

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Updated: Dec 29, 2019 6:48 AM

Privately, at the centre of the story, you have an East India Company resident, who converts to Islam and becomes a double agent, working against the company.

It was about how the East and the West have never been alienated from each other, and there were always possibilities of crossover.

On the parallels between East India Company and today’s corporate world

I always try and find a story that has a contemporary resonance. White Mughals (2002) was just after 9/11, everyone was talking about clash of civilisations. It was about how the East and the West have never been alienated from each other, and there were always possibilities of crossover. There was a porousness of identities. Privately, at the centre of the story, you have an East India Company resident, who converts to Islam and becomes a double agent, working against the company. This message seemed important at the time. I wrote Return of the King (2012) just after the West had gone back into Afghanistan and seemed ignorant of the lessons that previous incursions into the region had got them, particularly the catastrophe of 1839 when British army got completely wiped out, and famously only one man, Dr (William) Brydon, made it out on a pony to tell the news. Anarchy is very much in that line. I think history is most interesting when it has a lesson for us today.

On Anarchy and audacity of the Company

Anarchy has two combined stories. One has been forgotten, not accidentally; it has been deliberately removed from the record. The Victorians were embarrassed by the crude commercial, capitalist, grubby way that the Empire had started. They respun it as a story of glorious conquest. In reality, of course, it wasn’t the British per say, it was one London company, in a small office block. The evil genius of the Company is the way it was able to exploit the profit motive of the Indian bankers. The audacity of the Company was to borrow money from Indian financiers to pay for Indian troops and to conquer India. It’s a story so improbable that if you take it to Netflix, they will laugh you out of court, but it happened.

On the global right-wing swell

In the ’80s, we had Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. These things go in ebbs and flows. Sixties was the decade of the left, ’80s was the decade of the right. These are waves of public opinion. We can see thewhat’s happening — from (Jair) Bolsonaro, (Narendra) Modi, Boris Johnson, to (Donald) Trump — unstitching itself. These things go in 10-20 year cycles.

On India at its prime

Hindutva myth apart, this country had an extraordinary millennium between about 400 AD and 1200 AD, when you have the whole of Southeast Asia adopting Sanskrit names; you have the churning of the ocean on the back wall of the Angkor Wat; the Ramayana passing all the way down to Java and Malaysia. You have this huge Sanskrit cosmopolis which is converted to Indian ways through soft power rather than through conquests. What I think has happened is that the civilisational story of India at its most brilliant, beaming out ideas of kingship, technology, ways of living and the Sanskrit language gets divided into two different departments — you get the story of the spread of Buddhism and the story of the Sanskritisation of Southeast Asia… Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, sets off from China, and says, ‘The country in the world most admired by educated people is India’…In fact, it’s one story of India commanding the imagination of Asia during this period.

On whether India has benefited from immigration

Yes, India is a huge mixed pot of million migrations. You are all immigrants, man originated in Africa and everyone of you in this room has the genes of those early out of African migration… I firmly believe that the richness of this country culturally comes from that multiple layering. So it’s a history of conflict but the richness of Indian culture comes from that.

Excerpts and full video of The Adda is available on indianexpress.com

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