Dalrymple caught up in spat over 'Raj' and 'racism'

The award-winning historian William Dalrymple has found himself at the centre of a high-profile spat over claims that British authors writing about India are inheritors of "a Raj that still lingers".

A pointed article in an Indian news magazine, Open, accused the Indian elite of remaining beholden to British literary culture and to events such as this week's Jaipur Literature Festival, which Dalrymple organises in the desert state of Rajasthan each year.

Questioning Dalrymple's purported position as arbiter of Indian literary quality, the article said: "The festival works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment. Getting that literary establishment to take note of India requires making use of a certain romantic association that stretches back to the Raj."

Dalrymple, who for more than a quarter of a centuryhas divided his time between India and the UK and is the author of such books as City of Djinns and The Last Mughal, has hit back angrily at the allegations. In a letter to the magazine, he said the article was "blatantly racist" and that the festival hosted writers working in a dozen of India's 22 official languages. A full two-thirds of the literary celebrities invited every year were from South Asia, he said.

"My adopted country is in general pretty tolerant of people who choose to come and live here, and I have only once before had to write a letter like this, defending my existence as a writer in the country I love," he wrote. "But I do think there is an important principle at stake here, and to me at least, that piece felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant's letterbox."

The festival at Jaipur, the pink-coloured capital of Rajasthan, began in 2006 and over the years has attracted guests such as Vikram Seth, Fatima Bhutto, Rana Dasgupta, Tina Brown, Salman Rushdie, Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif. The article in Open, written by political editor Hartosh Singh Bal – himself a novelist – takes several swipes at foreign writers based in India, particularly those from Britain, who he says report a specific vision of the country. And yet, he says, such people are fawned upon by the Indian literary establishment.

"Our ability to fawn extends well beyond the foreign correspondent. Our publishers need the stamp of British approval. All you need to do is compare the advances paid out to books submitted locally with books that first got accepted in the UK," he continued. "This constant need for British approval allows writers from the UK to produce and sell books that should be junked in India."

For now, the argument appears to be cooling. Dalrymple said yesterday that he regretted making the allegation of racism. He said he had invited Mr Bal to attend the festival and to meet him for a drink.

By no small irony, one of the writers appearing at the festival on January 25 is Manu Joseph, whose debut novel, Serious Men, last year won The Hindu newspaper's award for best fiction. He is also editor of Open magazine.

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