William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. He burst upon the scene in 1989 as a precocious, if occasionally a bit snotty travel writer, with In Xanadu in which he traced the path of Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Xanadu in Inner Mongolia. He really hit stride, however, with City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, an essentially perfect example of the “Year in” genre that combines humor, history and analysis and remains to this day an excellent guide to historical Delhi. In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple traveled from Greece to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to understand the ancient roots of the Christian populations in these countries. Sadly, Dalrymple’s trip has become in some respects a last document of cultures now disappearing under the stress of war, revolution and suppression. As Dalrymple aged he turned more and more to pure history. In The Last Mughal and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalyrmple gives what I think are the definitive accounts of the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the British invasion of Afghanistan of 1839-1842. Especially notable in both of these books is that Dalyrmple draws on previous ignored or underused Indian and Afghani accounts. There are other books, collections of journalistic essays, photographs and more but I will mention just one more, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a beautiful and unforgettable account of nine people in modern India each walking a unique religious path.
In his latest book, The Anarchy, Dalrymple recounts the remarkable history of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. I review The Anarchy at EH.net. Here’s one bit from my review:
The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.