There’s no city like Delhi

William Dalrymple at the Times LitFest

This weekend the Times of India has arranged a festival of talks about art, politics, music, film and literature at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. William Dalrymple is my favourite author at the moment (“City of Djinns” is my bedtime reading). He was scheduled to speak at 4:30pm, so I got to the auditorium early and just caught the end of a talk on how Pakistan will never be a democracy. As people left, I sneaked into a chair and nodded my way through the next session on how India will advance in the future.

William Dalrymple turned up five minutes late. By then, the auditorium was packed. The aisles were full, people were sitting on the floor in front of the dais, and a handful of foreigners had joined me in the audience.

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The session was chaired by Sam Miller, another travel writer but primarily a journalist. Dalrymple talked enthusiastically about Delhi, “I have no time for people was say Delhi is a boring, smoked out city.” When he was asked about how he started writing, he said that he applied for a travel scholarship grant only available to mediaeval historians at his Cambridge college. He did some research and found that the longest journey of the mediaeval period was Marco Polo’s expedition to Mongolia, so he asked for funding to repeat it. He received £750, most of which went on air fares at the beginning and end of the journey. He wrote “In Xanadu” at the age of 21 and it was so successful that he decided to become a writer.

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He read some short extracts from his books, (“City of Djinns” and “From the Holy Mountain”) which were hilarious. His next book about the Koh-i-Noor diamond will be published in nine days. But his magnum opus about the East India Company is two years away from completion.

Lots of Indians had brought their copies of his books to be signed. I caught sight of a young lady with an old orange Penguin version of City of Djinns. After the lecture, I thought of joining the queue to speak to him and have him sign my book – but it would had to have been an electronic signature, as my copies are on my Kindle.

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