At the precocious age of 21, William Dalrymple travelled 19,000 kilometres in the footsteps of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to the fabled land of Xanadu in eastern China. On completion he published the best-selling and universally lauded In Xanadu: A Quest.
The dazzling young Cambridge graduate then based himself in Delhi for six years, where he summoned the ghostly spirits of the ancient capital with the assistance of Sufi mystics, a gaggle of eunuchs and the great grand-daughter of the last Mughal emperor. The resulting City of Djinnsgarnered Dalrymple the Thomas Cook Travel Book award and The Sunday Times’s Young Writer of the Year prize.
Then, in perhaps his most ambitious journey, he retraced the path of the sixth-century monk John Moschos from Mt Athos in Greece to the deserts of Egypt, rediscovering remnants of the Christian Levant and “stumbling by accident” across an ancient form of Byzantine plainsong in Syria that appears to “represent one of the principal roots of the entire Western tradition of sacred music”.
Clearly, Dalrymple, now 38, is no ordinary travel writer. It’s tempting to try to dismiss him as some uncommonly gifted bore on a winning streak. But the reality is his work is mesmerising, both for its extraordinary scholarship and his facility for language. He also has a wonderful sense of humour, a BAFTA award for his Indian Journeys television series, a fellowship with the Royal Society of Literature (the society’s youngest ever fellow), and he has just completed what he reckons is his best story.
“I can’t imagine I am ever going to get as good a story as this again,” Dalrymple says – in his terribly posh voice – by phone from New York. “I sometimes lie awake and think: ‘How on earth?’ It’s such a fabulous, fabulous story.”
White Mughals is another stunning piece of erudition, this time reconstructing the romance between an 18th-century British general and a Muslim princess in colonial India. In the five-year process of researching and writing it, Dalrymple managed to debunk the Victorian notion of a subcontinent strictly bisected into the rulers and the ruled. Using rare, forgotten or otherwise ignored texts from British and Indian sources, he reveals the lengths to which the colonisers and their subjects loved, lived and prospered together.
Not the least “fabulous” element of the story is Dalrymple’s own charmed discoveries in the British Library’s India Office Library, his chance find of a crucial 1600-page autobiography buried in a dusty bookshop at the back of a Hyderabadi bazaar, and the unearthing of some obscure letters in an Oxford library that revealed the conclusion to the love affair.
To reveal too much of the plot here would be an injustice to Dalrymple’s denouement. But the strength of the story can be judged from the fact its hardback sales are already more than three times those of his previous books, from his receipt of England’s major history prize, and from the academic acclaim it is attracting.
But you get the sense Dalrymple is hoping his efforts might have a more profound influence. “White Mughals, when I started it, was about as relevant as Dad’s Army,” he concedes. “But suddenly, when Islam is being perceived as the new enemy … this book in a sense is a sort of trumpet call against the notion of the clash of civilisations.”
He stresses this point in the book’s introduction: “… at a time when … Islam and Christianity appear to be engaged in another major confrontation, this unlikely group of expatriates provides a timely reminder that it is indeed very possible – and has always been possible – to reconcile the two worlds.”
Religion, particularly Islam, has been central to all of Dalrymple’s work. “[Islam] is something I have fallen very much in love with,” he says (though, he hastens to add, he has no love for the perverted doctrines of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states). “I love the music, I love the food, I love the architecture. It is the thing in life which has most fascinated me.”
But now here he is, in Bush’s America (“I’ve always been terrifically anti-American”), where, he confesses, he was nervous about what the reaction might be to his overtly pro-Islam book. He needn’t have worried. “It [White Mughals] is against everything that the current administration is for. But the people who come to my lectures feel even more strongly than I do that this is the very worst government they have ever had.”
While he dismisses the suggestion of an agenda running through his books, Dalrymple did make a decision with White Mughals to redress the “massive misrepresentation of Islam in the media”.
“I am certainly trying to change perceptions about Islam,” he says. “Some people like trainspotting; I am interested in Islam.”
His coming two books will provide ample scope to further indulge his interests. The first is a sequel of sorts to White Mughals, chronicling the Great (Indian) Mutiny of 1857. It is a period that has been tackled repeatedly, but not in the way Dalrymple intends to approach it.
“The great myth is that there are no Indian sources for the Great Mutiny,” he says. “There are great sources.” He has already managed to identify no fewer than 6000 Indian texts, which his translator is busily working on now in Dalrymple’s Delhi apartment. The author also has a contract to write a book of three pilgrimages (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) in India.
In the meantime, he is heading to Australia this month for the Sydney Writers’ festival. It will be his first visit to this country. Dalrymple can’t help thinking his name would have been better known here if only his ancestor Alexander Dalrymple, the East India Company’s original hydrographer and one of the first men to postulate the theory of a Great Southern Land, had not been overlooked for a certain exploratory expedition in 1770.
“They sent this fellow James Cook instead,” he says, laughing.
White Mughals, by William Dalrymple, is published by HarperCollins