Wednesday, March 28, 2007

William Dalrymple at the Asia Society

On Monday evening, I remembered almost too late that everyone's favorite Mughal scholar was scheduled to talk about his new book at The Asia Society, so instead of catching some much needed sleep, I hauled myself over to the Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium and found a seat in the fifth row. All around me, Desi ladies sporting various degrees of chic chatted away or strode about purposefully. The author was busy too, standing by the apron of the stage and signing books for those who needed to stay far ahead of the game. I was squeezed between two elderly gentlemen, the one giving off an aroma of old books and ancient tweed, and the other practicing a distinctive style of patterned and belabored breathing, so I had a really hard time staying awake.

Eventually, after a number of complimentary remarks in the way of mild jokes from various ladies about learning more about ourselves from an Englishman, Vishaka Desai
introduced WD, who took the podium and read some passages from his new book, alternately scintillating and gory, as I registerd through a fog. I believe he was showing this picture on the screen when the slide projector went on the fritz and I dozed off. Then he was showing another slide, of a 1858 lithograph by J.R. Turnbull showing how the British Officer's Mess was set up at the Red Fort after the massacre, sacking and looting of Delhi... or rather, of the fugly mess they made there with mediocre mahogany furniture set out in rows across the white marble intarsia Diwan-i Khas (Private Audience Hall) of Shah Jehan and his descendants... and I dozed off again, my thoughts blurring the image of the lithograph with memories of this story and this image, among others.

Finally woken up by all the clapping, I consoled myself that I'd soon read the book anyway and look at the pictures as long as I liked. All I'd managed to catch was that WD seemed to be proposing that the Uprising had failed because Dilliwallahs can't get along with Biharis and looked down on them then as they do now. Maya Jasannoff appeared and exchanged a few pleasantries with WD about Zafar being more poet than warrior, which is not news, so I figured there must be more. WD was saying that working with the previously untouched Urdu and Persian papers in the National Archives in Delhi was like finding new source material about the French Revolution. He put forth his thesis that it was a war of religions, and remarked that the language of that war is being used once more without any apparent gain in understanding. I noticed he pronounced Meerut the way I had heard it (mis)pronounced at Tolly-- "May-root" --which I figured must ibe customary for some people. Then the Q & A began. I had raised a sleepwalking hand, but the photographer posted at the apron of the stage beat me to it. He started out saying that Biharis have created value wherever they went, including Long Island, and seemed to refer as well to the incident in Canada, back in 1914, recently documented in Ali Kazimi's film, Continuous Journey, during which a Japanese vessel with predominantly Sikh (and now apparently Bihari) passengers wh intended to immigrate had been turned away. Suddenly ladies were flapping their hands and enjoining him to desist and urging me to ask my question. I was fascinated, and wanted to hear more, but pulled myself together and asked, How comfortable was WD using the term "Mutiny"?

He said he had been asked that question all over India (where it's called The First War of Indian Independence, even though there was no second war, not counting a relatively small sideshow during WWII). He didn't use "mutiny" himself, he said, but there had been a mutiny, that was a fact-- did that answer my question? Well no, it didn't-- I wanted a chat about conscience and permissibility, but realized this was an auditorium rather than a cocktail party, and I was hardly in top form, so I said, fine, sure, whatever-- I had served the ladies' purpose.

Afterwards, in the line for book signing, a student recently returned
to grad school at Columbia from vacation in India held out her Indian edition for me to compare it with my American one. "This book is all the rage, as a present, I mean- everyone's giving it to their friends as gifts for any occasion." The jacket was of heavy, finely-printed stock in vivid colors, the pages were well cut at the fore-edge, it seemed to open flexibly. "Not quite a nice as yours," she said. I looked at mine and felt its pages, which had a tad more bonding but the same print quality. "It couldn't have been produced in India at all, thirty years ago," I told her. "Well, I guess it's pretty good," she said. "Anyway, it was six hundred rupees-- so, like, ten dollars to your thirty." I balked at this, and decided that couldn't be right. "That's the exchange rate now, is it?" I asked her, wondering what she studies and eats for breakfast, kids these days...She shrugged. "Okay, so fifteen," she said.

Now, having brought it home, I'll read it. Meanwhile, here' s William Dalrymple's
own synopsis.



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