BENGALURU: It’s the oddest story in history,” said William Dalrymple, while speaking about the subject of his latest book: The East India Company. The Scottish historian, who was in Bengaluru this weekend for the launch of his latest book, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, continued about how a London office taking over the Mughal empire, which was then the richest state in the world, is an extraordinary tale of corporate violence.
“Interestingly, 100 years into their existence, the company only had 35 people in their head office in London and in India, at their peak, they were never more than 2,000 white civil servants. And yet, they trained an army of 200 thousand Indian warriors, borrowing money from Indian bankers. It’s a very strange story,” said Dalrymple.
This isn’t the first time the historian has thrown light on the activities of the company. However, while it was present in the background of White Mughals, The Last Mughal and Return of a King, this is the first time the East India Company will be the main subject of his book.
“Many Indians and people in Britain associate the East India Company with the British. But the more I read, the more I realised it wasn’t the British anymore than Facebook is the Americans or Google the Californians,” Dalrymple explained.
The book, which took six years in the making, tries to tell two stories: The rise of the East India Company and the fall of Mughal empire.
The former required Dalrymple to find out more about the British and Indian side of things. “But the two often differ. It’s like university students writing home to tell their parents what they’re up to. They obviously leave out the juicy bits,” he laughed, adding that he eventually chose to focus his research on Mughal emperor Shah Alam, who saw the transformation.
The hardest part of the process was decoding the Persian sources, which Dalrymple found at the British Library and in provincial archives across India.
He sought help of a scholar who then lived with him for 18 months. “He knew the language but not the history and I knew the history and not the language. So we worked well together.”
Dalrymple published his first book at the age of 22 and today, the 54-year-old has more than 10 books to his credit. Recalling his initial tryst with the country, he said he came here by accident at the age of 18, accompanying his friend who was then teaching in Dehradun.
He went on to settle in Delhi with his wife and three children, who also share a love for history and writing.
The biggest change has been his transition from being a journalist and travel writer to a historian. His next book will be a “big sweep” on the history of Indian civilisation in 21 cities.
Dalrymple no longer considers himself a complete outsider in India. “I’m both an insider and outsider, which is a useful lens for a writer to position himself in.”
When asked about his views on the situation in Kashmir, Dalrymple – who has also been a foreign correspondent who covered the issue in the 1980s – said he doesn’t like the changes he sees.
“I don’t think India is doing itself any favours in the long run. My suspicion is that this will come back to bite India later,” he said.
Calling Partition a terrible tragedy of this part of the world, he added, “It breeds intolerance and drains huge resources from both countries.
But the most damaging of it all is that it distracts India from China, which is by far the bigger threat with its vastly more modernised army and larger economy.”