“Look at the beauty of this,” he says gesturing towards the harbour bathed in morning sun.
Dalrymple has reason to be in good spirits. The Anarchy, published in September, is already a hit. Last month he posted a Tweet saying 100,000 hardback copies had been sold.
It tells the astonishing story of how one of the world’s first multinational corporations destroyed and replaced the mighty Mughal Empire and grabbed control over the Indian subcontinent during the 18th century.
Dalrymple was just 22 years old when he won critical acclaim for his first book, a travelogue called In Xanadu: A Quest, which retraced the journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the ruined palace of Kublai Khan north of Beijing.
More than a dozen works since have been showered with awards and Dalrymple, now aged 54, has won a global audience for his narrative histories from the Indian subcontinent, especially the period of transition from Mughal rule to the British Raj during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As we walk through the Botanic Gardens in search of a cafe I ask Dalrymple about his approach to writing.
“I’ve occasionally read profiles of novelists who describe writing as a voyage into the unknown,” he says, “But I couldn’t imagine writing a word without having the whole thing plotted out long in advance.”
Dalrymple’s books are meticulously planned.
For The Anarchy, more than five years were spent doing research and curating material. The project then culminated with an intense writing phase that only lasted about nine months.
“The analogy I use is Chinese cooking,” says Dalrymple of book-writing strategy.
“You spend most of your time cutting up spring onions, chopping ginger or marinating the lamb and all that stuff. The actual cooking, when you shove it into the wok at the end, might only take two or three minutes. In an ideal world that’s the case with a book like this too.”
Dalrymple was raised in Scotland and educated at Cambridge but has spent much of his adult life in India where his family rents a farmhouse on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi.
Once the research and preparation are finished, he withdraws to his “writing shed” on the property.
“I’m naturally a very sociable man, I like a party and I like a drink, but … I lock myself away, I become a teetotaller and I get up especially early,” he says.
His writing routine begins about five in the morning.
“I have a print-out beside my bed and before I look at my phone or answer any emails – that’s a crucial part of the story – I’m out on the terrace with a clipboard and pen correcting the previous day’s writing,” he says.
“The first couple of hours is correcting and cutting down stuff – I correct it longhand, on paper. Often half of it goes at that point – it’s never as good as you thought it was in the clarity of the morning light. Even stuff that you thought was very good often needs a lot of work.”
Dalrymple often leaves his desk and takes a walk when considering the structure of a specific passage or how the narrative will move from one thing to another.
“Behind my writing shed in Delhi I’ve got this area where the goats graze – my kids called it the ‘goat-away’ – which I go round and round working things out in my head then I come running back to my desk and scribble it down before I forget.”
As we chat Dalrymple stops and pulls out his Samsung smartphone to photograph a bed of spring flowers.
While working on The Anarchy he rediscovered a teenage passion for photography.
“I used to sell photos and I won a few prizes but then I got into writing, so my photography fell apart,” he says.
Dalrymple’s interest was rekindled when he began using his smartphone to take photos during book research.
“I realised you could do dark and moody prints thanks to [photo-editing] apps like Snapseed,” he says.
Dalrymple has had two photography exhibitions showcasing pictures he took while travelling across the subcontinent researching The Anarchy.
“I do very much the same sort of stuff that I was doing then with a 30-year break in between – pretentious student photographs,” he says. “And you don’t even need to get covered in fixer any more.”
We find our way to Piccolo Me, an outdoor cafe in front of the historic Palace Garden Gate to the Botanic Gardens on Macquarie Street. It’s a much better place for breakfast than a hotel lobby.
Dalrymple orders smashed avocado on toast with scrambled eggs, mushrooms and halloumi.
He was introduced to smashed avocado during a trip to Adelaide last year and had it “morning after morning” for the rest of the trip.
The Anarchy, billed as Dalrymple’s most ambitious work so far, challenges stereotypes of British India.
“The Brits have never really come to terms with empire, they just forgot about it,” he says. “They have failed to acknowledge the dark side of their empire.”
But truths from the period are overlooked in India as well, especially the way local financiers collaborated with the company.
“It seems inexplicable why any Indian would help the East India Company if you look at it from a modern patriotic perspective but at the time these guys were seen as the best possible option for their capital and the safest financial bet,” he says.
Dalrymple frames The Anarchy as a cautionary tale with modern relevance.
In the book’s epilogue, he writes: “The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.”
The company’s story “has never been more current” the last sentence warns.
Many of Dalrymple’s own forebears, and those of his wife Olivia Fraser, worked for the East India Company.
“In a sense that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this,” he says. “It’s like an apologia for generations of looting and pillaging Scotsmen … my family sent out younger sons for generation after generation in the hope that one or two of them would make fortunes but, actually, none of them did.”
It’s like an apologia for generations of looting and pillaging Scotsmen.
The clan’s first company recruit, named Stair Dalrymple, “made a particular hash of it”. He racked up huge debts trading indigo and then died in the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756. His name can still be found on the memorial to victims at St John’s Church in Calcutta.
The writings of another forebear, East India Company cartographer Alexander Dalrymple, helped pave the way for British expeditions to the Southern Seas led by James Cook in the late 18th century.
Alexander Dalrymple’s controversial theory about the existence of a great southern continent below the equator gained notoriety in London in the 1760s and it was even suggested he lead an expedition. However, the British Admiralty gave the command to Cook and Alexander Dalrymple, furious at being overlooked, refused to join the voyage that first charted the east coast of Australia.
“He basically had the idea and raised a lot of the money,” says William Dalrymple of his forebear “but this wanker called Captain Cook went and took all the fame – the bastard. But for which people would be able to spell my name.”
Dalrymple points out that many associated with the East India Company moved to colonial Australia after their time in India, particularly during the 1820s and 1830s.
One of them was the influential NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie who fought in several East India Company military campaigns during the late 1700s before his arrival in Australia.
“My impression is that people are only now waking to the degree to which the story of Australia and the story of the company are closely linked,” says Dalrymple.
As a second round of coffee arrives, the conversation turns to modern India.
I’m a huge optimist about India economically. It cannot fail to become a major world power within our lifetimes.
Dalrymple has spent decades exploring the country’s history, culture and politics, so what does he expects from the re-emerging giant?
“I’m a huge optimist about India economically,” he says. “It cannot fail to become a major world power within our lifetimes.”
Dalrymple is a co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literary Festival, the world’s largest literature event.
Its success reflects the changing tastes and growing wealth of India’s burgeoning middle class.
More than 400,000 people attended this year’s main festival and “JLF global” has eight international satellites including one in Adelaide.
“Jaipur is one of the things I am most proud of,” says Dalrymple.
“The best thing about is that it’s free. If you go to Jaipur railway station during the festival there are 2000 kids sleeping rough at the station with their guitars and stuff. They can’t afford a hotel but they have come all the way from Assam or Tamil Nadu. We get mad-keen fan-boys longing to meet their favourite writers.”
But Dalrymple is “extremely anxious” about trends at work in Indian politics especially the growing influence of Hindu nationalism.
“In the past few months we’ve seen it accelerate,” he says. “People are becoming afraid to speak out.”
Piccolo Me, Macquarie St, Sydney
Monday to Friday, 7am to 3.30pm
Matt Wade is a senior economics writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.