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Why we travel: William Dalrymple on how living in India has changed him

William Dalrymple didn’t set out to become Britain’s leading chronicler of Indian history, but a chance trip to the subcontinent started a lifelong obsession. Thirty years on, he’s still living in Delhi — a city with a “tangible sense of history”.

Published 2 Jul 2020, 08:11 BST, Updated 11 Dec 2020, 20:08 GMT
The bustling Chandni Chowk market in central Delhi.

The bustling Chandni Chowk market in central Delhi.

Photograph by Getty Images

I never intended to come to India. I originally set out to be an archaeologist in the Middle East, but the dig I was assigned to in Iraq closed down — purportedly due to a nest of British spies. So, I joined a friend who was heading to India. I had no particular connection to the country, but when I arrived, it was one of those moments in life when everything changes. Thirty years later, I’m still here. A constantly changing kaleidoscope of things has kept me attached, and a whole variety of careers have been facilitated by being here. My first job, teaching, took me from the Himalayas down to the far southern tip of country. By the time I was two stops in, India had unveiled itself in all its complexity and beauty — I was addicted.

“Delhi never feels pedestrian. It always feels bonkers.”

by William Dalrymple

I’m a changed person, having lived here. Just as I now look different from how I did when I turned up in India aged 18, I now think very differently too. I came from an extremely Catholic Scottish background. I went to monastic schools, my uncle’s a priest and my brother became a priest, too — we took our Catholicism seriously. Here, everyone believes in different things. Even within Hinduism, there are million ways of practising, different gods to worship and a choice of festivals to observe. India is so vast and varied in a way that Britain isn’t for me; it’s an oddly homogenous place despite its history of immigration and empire. India has made me more open-minded than would have been possible living in Europe. India is a true multiculture — it’s massively pluralistic in every sense: racially, religiously, climatically, geographically. It’s a living lesson against dogmatism.

William Dalrymple is the author of numerous travel and popular history books about India. His latest book is The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

Photograph by William Dalrymple

Delhi is much underrated. Even within India. It’s regarded as a difficult place to live and as a big, polluted city — although it’s been glorious during lockdown. For me, as a historian and a writer, Delhi is fascinating. It has such a tangible sense of history, with monuments lying around on roundabouts, and tombs, palaces and old city walls wherever you turn. The Delhi Archives is also located here — housing a lifetime of documents that have barely been read — and when I need a break from my research, there’s plenty going on elsewhere. Delhi has transformed in the past couple of decades from a government town to a place that’s home to India’s publishing and media industries, and many of its best writers. It has an amazing classical music and dance scene. I’m never bored here. In England, on a dreary winter’s day, things can feel pedestrian. Delhi never feels pedestrian. It always feels bonkers. 

I’ve been travelling around India for 30 years and there’s still a good quarter of the country I’ve yet to see. There are major monuments and mountain ranges, extraordinary places in the Himalayas I’m dying to visit. India is a continent rather than a country — you could never run out of things to explore here. I feel like a child in a sweet shop or a miser in a bank vault sometimes. There’s an almost infinite amount to take in, see and understand. The book I’m currently working on is about the diffusion of Indian culture out of India: the way Buddhism took over China, and the way Hinduism took over Southeast Asia. Plus, there’s the way Indian mathematics travelled first to Baghdad and then to Renaissance Europe, giving us the decimal system and the numerals we use today — I didn’t know all this until a few years ago. Here I am in my mid-50s, still discovering amazing, world-changing information whenever I open a book about this country.

William Dalrymple is the author of numerous travel and popular history books about India. His latest book is The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

Interview: Sarah Barrell

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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