(October 23, 2022) For centuries India has attracted scholars from across the globe. From Fa Hien to Megasthenes and Ferešte, many travellers have explored and written books about this ancient land. With its varied treasures of history, mythology, geography, anthropology, religion, and tradition, India is still an attraction to modern writers, who come to explore the land and its stories from across the planet. Global Indian puts the spotlight on a few authors of foreign origin who have captured India and its rich history through their words.
It was love at first sight. An 18-year-old boy who just came to New Delhi on an assignment from London, was completely mesmerised by the beauty of this city, known to have been destroyed and built seven times. And thus began a three-decade-long love affair, which is still the talk of the town. “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,” author William Dalrymple had once written in one of his National Geographic articles.
His first book on India, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, is a beautiful amalgamation of Dalrymple’s deep research and experience of this colourful city. Part memoir and part travelogue, the book paints an engaging and fascinating portrait of this age-old city through its vibrant characters. He wasn’t so confident about the book, however, when it became a best-seller in no time, there was no looking back for Dalrymple. His work includes White Mughals, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, and The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.
Even after 30 years, 11 books, and innumerable articles on Indian history, Dalrymple is still fascinated by this land. “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,” he wrote.
Sir William Mark Tully
Decorated with Padma Shree, Padma Bhushan, and Officer of the Order of the British Empire – Sir William Mark Tully is one of the most renowned writers in the world. Ever since he was a child, he was enchanted by India’s streets, colours, and vibrant culture. In fact, the famous author once wanted to become a priest and even pursued a degree in theology in his early 20s. However, fate had other plans for him. After being thrown out of the country in 1975 along with several other foreign correspondents, Tully returned to India two years later as the Chief of the Bureau of BBC and has stayed in the country since.
Starting from his first book – Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle – India has been the subject of all of Tully’s books. His narrations have been extremely insightful, educational, and yet so fascinating that the readers can hardly put the books down. From politics to caste wars, and blood feuds to a common man’s daily life, Tully has covered everything that makes up India in the last five decades that he has been writing. Now in his late 80s, the author’s recent books Upcountry Tales: Once Upon A Time In The Heart Of India, No Full Stops In India, and India In Slow Motion, are supremely engaging collections of short stories, marked by warmth, wit, and a keen and compassionate eye for the everyday human theatre in rural north India.
Calling himself a Dilliwala in one of his interviews, Tully had said, “I believe in karma. My karma was to be born British — and you can’t lose that. I would love to be an Indian citizen. But in this country, you cannot have dual nationality.”
They brought back the Moghuls from their graves to several Indians’ bookshelves, and now even on their TV screens. Yes, they! Contrary to popular belief, Alex Rutherford is a pen used by two writers – Diana and Michael Preston – who have been fascinated by Indian history since they were students at Oxford University. A chance trip to India, to see the famed Taj Mahal inspired the couple to research, firstly the building of the monument and later the dynasty that was behind several monumental structures in India. During their research, the couple even travelled to the Ferghana Valley in Kyrgyzstan, where the first Moghul emperor, Babur, began his journey. And thus was the six-book historical fiction series Empire of the Moghul, born.
“Ever since our university days, we wanted to be writers. What inspired us to write about India was the travelling that we did here. We came to India very soon after we got married and we kept coming back, because we were so fascinated by the society here, the complex, multi-layered history and that’s what eventually many years after our first visit, we wrote our book, a non-fiction about the creation of the Taj Mahal. Since we had read all the chronicles of the Moghuls, to understand the genesis of that building, it led us to write a series of novels, The Empire of the Moghul,” Diana had said during a recent interview with the Times of India.
However, their love affair with the land didn’t come to a halt after they finished writing the series. The couple has penned several other books including A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time: The Story of the Taj Mahal and Fortune’s Soldier, the stories of which revolve around Moghul Indian society. Recently, famed director Nikhil adapted the Empire of the Moghul into a web series, streamed on Disney+ Hotstar.
Journalists seldom find fame by reporting the daily rustics. So, when Katherine Boo first went to one of Mumbai’s Annawadi, she could hardly resist the challenge to voice the stories of the destitute and dug in. For two years, between 2008 to 2010, Katherine practically lived in the slums while working on her compact 250-page-long book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Vividly illustrated, the book conduits tales of developing-world poverty. Dealing with rats and sick people daily in her two years of research, the Pulitzer-winning author said in an interview that once she stepped into their world, it was hard to step back. “I’m not squeamish. Tuberculosis was a concern: there were many people I spent time with whose stories were that they got sicker and sicker and then they died. But if you’re curious, you don’t dwell on it that much. It was not pleasant to fall into the sewage lake. But at the same time, I didn’t know it was a petrochemical type of stuff until I fell in, so that was something I learned.”
Still in India, searching for her next subject, Katherine feels that there is so much left to be explored in this ancient land. “When in Mumbai these days I find myself still making tapes, documenting corruption and social problems — I can’t help myself.”