I’m Surprised Ram Mandir Issue Has Ended Where it Has: William Dalrymple | Exclusive on Jaipur LitFest

Renowned historian and author William Dalrymple, in an exclusive interview with CNN-News18, said he was “surprised” that the Ram Mandir issue had “ended where it has”. Co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Dalrymple was speaking ahead of the event scheduled from February 1-5.

As the LitFest will be held days after the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Dalrymple said it would be discussed, but won’t dominate the event. “It is important that authors discuss issues…India still is a country where these things can be discussed publicly. We tend to do so. We will do so very openly and without censorship,” he said.

He said it was fascinating to see India revive the ancient maritime route between India and Europe, adding the Indian narrative on the famous Silk Route was lost. “The main east-west trade route in the early centuries was between Kerala and Egypt by the sea route, by the Red Sea. As a historian, it’s fascinating to see this very obvious maritime communication re-open and gain a new life,” he said.


“It is important to put events like these in historical context. We have the greatest historians in the world that are discussing all these issues. This was one of the first stories I ever covered… 35 years ago. I went to Lucknow and interviewed Atal Bihari Vajpayee (the late former PM) who was then just an MP of Lucknow. That was the first interview that I had ever done with an Indian politician. Since then, I covered the whole Ayodhya movement as a young journalist. I am surprised it has ended where it has. It is very interesting to follow what has happened. I don’t think this is something that is going to dominate Jaipur Litfest because there are so many other areas. We are not a political conference to make a political commentary on where the country is going. We have some of the leading writers and historians. It will certainly play a part, but the world is bigger than one issue,” he said.


Dalrymple said he was fascinated that the old sea trade route between India and Europe was to be revived. “I am not a geopolitics expert. I am a historian who studied this and when you see drawings still within Mumbai, in these caves on hilltops that one can see if you are a Roman vessel arriving from the Red sea or a Greek vessel… I saw this afternoon an old Farsi inscription, a Chinese inscription left by visiting pilgrims in the Kanheri caves and these were part of the travellers who often travelling with the merchants on this sea route.”

Dalrymple, during his visit to Mumbai, went to the famous Kanheri caves. “I have come here from the Kanheri caves. They were built by monks who were often sponsored by the merchants who are trading along that route. What many people don’t realise is how big the maritime route from then Bombay to Gujarat and all over from Kerala was. It was much more important than the Silk Route, which was looked at as the be-all and end-all. That was partly because it’s romantic — camels crossing the Hindu Kush — but also it’s been promoted politically by the Chinese government…To an extent, the Indian narrative had been lost,” he said.


Speaking about the literary event, he said, “We have got an extraordinary line-up of speakers. I think people take for granted what the team has been pulling off each year. We have been doing this for 20 years now. But there is literally no other festival anywhere in the world that brings together the Booker winner, Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer winner, Sahitya Academy prize winner — whoever is the new big name in Oxford or in Yale. The whole thing is basically free. At a very nominal charge, you can hear the greatest minds in the world. The greatest scientists, historians, novelists, poets, musicians — for free. Just come to Jaipur. It’s a unique and wonderful thing.”

Elaborating on the line-up, Dalrymple said he was excited to hear Gulzar, Catherine Randall, Damon Galgut, Amia Srinivasan, Simon Schama, Avi Shlaim and Antony Loewenstein. “My colleague Namita (Gokhale) has also put together a wonderful list of people. Her passion is getting the non-English languages. Her theme this year is how South Indian Bhasha literature is interacting with South-East Asia, old Sanskrit cosmopolis which stretched all the way to Bali. There is a huge Indian influence over the area,” he said.

He added that the Israel-Hamas conflict will also be the focus. “It is something I am hugely invested in. I have spent a long time in the Middle-East and feel very strongly about it. We also have voices from across the spectrum on a variety of things, on a film like Oppenheimer, a movie sensation earlier in the year.”

“To speak on the Israel-Hamas conflict, we have leading Jewish voices from different ends of the spectrum. From the pro-Israel side, we have Simon Schama, the extraordinary defender of Israeli counter campaign against Hamas. On the other hand, Antony Loewenstein, an extraordinary writer from the Arab world; Avi Shlaim, a liberal Jewish voice, will all be there. There will be extraordinary debate on the issue,” he said.

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