All I remember from history I read in school and BA are names and some stray events and years (only the big ones). Conversely, I remember the whole narrative and the main characters of the one history book – The Last Mughal – and several articles on various topics of subcontinent history by William Dalrymple I have read over the years.
This is the difference between telling history in a didactic manner as is taught in our schools and colleges and in a story telling manner.
Dalrymple chooses a passage of time / event, researches it deeply down to finer points about each character and writes it like a novel where the emphasis is on characters and how their traits shape the historical narrative.
In the book I am reading now, The Return of a King, Shah Shuja a literature lover who is kind and considerate departs from the general Afghan practice of blinding a defeated and captured enemy spares a person from the Barakzai clan a rival group who had revolted against his rule and merely keeps him captive in a fort.
Later this person escapes from imprisonment, joins Shuja’s rival and captures large swathes of his empire eventually bringing an end to the rule of the Durrani Empire to which the Shah belonged.
William Dalrymple is a Scott who has been staying in a farmhouse near Delhi for many years. In his early years in India as a historian he said his books shed new light on subjects that had been earlier written on by Indian historians, thanks to his use of research material that were left unused by his Indian counterparts “who were too lazy to use them”. The statement enraged the literary establishment and Dalrymple immediately came under attack.
Sobha De said the White Mughal, among Dalrymple’s early books which tells the story of a love affair between a British officer and a girl from Muslim nobility which took place almost 100 years before the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny when there was lot of camaraderie between the British and Indians which declined slowly because it was frowned upon by England and slowly disappeared resulting in complete gulf between the two sides – was imitative of The Far Pavilions which dealt with the same subject more competently. And Ramchandra Guha said Dalrymple’s books are factually inaccurate.
Dalrymple largely ducked the attacks complementing Shoba De for defending her beauty against age and calling himself poorly placed to return the barb of Guha because “Ramachandra Guha writes on cricket and I hardly know anything about the subject.” It was Guha’s pre India After Gandhi days.
Accusing Dalrymple of factual inaccuracy is slightly missing the point. Of course, accuracy is the primary responsibility of a historian or any nonfiction writer but given the way in which Dalrymple writes history there has to be some space for interpretation.
Dalrymple has done to history reading what Chetan Bhagat has done to novel reading: both have attracted people from outside traditional base of readers to the form. A large section of Dalrymple’s reader base are people like me: history lovers but not historians (aspiring or otherwise). They enjoy a good narrative and don’t consider little liberty taken with facts or interpretation creeping in as sacrilege.
But what research material does Dalrymple blame fellow historians for not using? As much as Dalrymple makes use of official archives and site research to construct the larger grid work of his narrative, he relies heavily on things like personal letters exchanged between characters and accounts left by contemporary travelers / observers for the inner lives of his characters. In Victorian times there was a custom of writing long letters, he had said once.