Why do you write non-fiction?
I remember this one fiction story I wrote as a young boy, and it was terrible! So I turned to non-fiction. But I didn’t start with history. My first three books are all travelogues. I only started writing history when I had children and I no longer travelled. I was drawn to non-fiction particularly in the Indian context when I started out 30 years ago. 1989 is the year that I first came to live here. It was a very odd situation; India was producing very little non-fiction despite having a fascinating history. In the 90s, non-fiction was being written by firangis, and there was no literary non-fiction coming out of India. The likes of Rushdie were going to Penguin; there were often expats doing novels and representing Indians. And as recently as 2004 when I moved back here, there was very little before Maximum City was published that year. It was only later that Basharat Peer wrote Curfewed Night, and Namita Devidayal did The Music Room.
Tell us a bit about Kohinoor, the story of the diamond, as you trace it.
Kohinoor is a collaborative work between me and Anita Anand, who wrote a book on Maharaja Duleep Singh’s daughter, Sophia. I’m doing the story till the death of Ranjit Singh, and she’s taking the story up from his son Duleep Singh in the second half of the book. We know that the Kohinoor was taken by Nadir Shah, but no one knows how it was acquired by Ranjit Singh or how the British wickedly extracted it from Duleep Singh. It’s a more complicated story than we know. It is my first joint project, but this is a small book. There is another big book I’m doing.
Can you tell us about your big book?
It is a five-year project which is a book on the rise of the massive East India Company. It was the first multi-national corporation with unprecedented global power, and it con- trolled not just India but the world. Basically, it was militarised trading...The East India Company had an army twice the size of Punjab! The book is called The Anarchy and it traces the fascinating story of the battle between the states and the corporation between 1756 and 1803. It was the first massive example of the misuse of corporate power. This is a corporation whose tentacles are the great octopus that changed his- tory. It’s a vast story, and I love the detective work. You should see it a year from now.
What are your thoughts on historical writing in India?
For some reason, in India you have a very odd divide where- by you have serious historians only writing in ugly academic prose, and then you have some popular authors who are not academically qualified, but are writing the hero-worshiping stuff. You are only just beginning to get serious non-fiction in India written for a general audience which is a product of four-five years of research and internationally valued. Like Ramachundra Guha’s India Before Gandhi or Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War. And while we see at least one Indian in Nobel Prize shortlists and certainly in long lists, there has rarely been an Indian non-fiction book I know to have made it to the lists...I only know of Samanth Subramanian’s book on Sri Lanka, This Divided Island, being nominated recently. What this means is that India is not writing non-fiction to the international level. But that is definitely changing.