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'Bruce, my translator, my friend': a tribute by William Dalrymple

Historian William Dalrymple remembers his translator Bruce Wannell’s rigorous scholarship, eye for detail—and his knack for always finding pianos to play

Bruce Wannell (1953-2020) devoted much of his life to studying and exploring the Persianate world, particularly Iran and Afghanistan, as well as India, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and East Africa. Courtesy William Dalrymple.
Bruce Wannell (1953-2020) devoted much of his life to studying and exploring the Persianate world, particularly Iran and Afghanistan, as well as India, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and East Africa. Courtesy William Dalrymple.

In 2015, Bruce and I began what would prove to be our final project together. It was to be a history of the East India Company, and was intended to complete the Company Quartet we had collaborated on, describing the transition from the world of the Mughals to the dawn of the British Raj, between the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the Great Uprising of 1857.

The central figure of this project was the ill-fated Shah Alam. His life formed an arc linking the Mughal glory days when Delhi ruled all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and most of Afghanistan, to its lowest nadir during the anarchy which followed the Mughal collapse after 1739. By the end of his life, as the famous doggerel had it, Shah Alam’s rule stretched only to Palam, today the site of New Delhi airport.

At the end of 2015, we began by making a series of raids on the Persian manuscripts of the British Library. Here Bruce’s old friend Ursula Sims-Williams, and her brilliant assistant, Saqib Baburi, of the Persian department brought out trolley-fulls of old, leather-bound Mughal manuscripts for us to look at. Some were originally from the library of the Red Fort, others from that of the East India Company Fort William College in Calcutta. Both had ended up rubbing spines and gathering dust together in the same collection under the grey skies of King’s Cross.

No one really seemed to have much idea what any of the manuscripts contained. The BL catalogue gave only the briefest description of each and almost none of them had ever been translated. Translating the eighteenth-century Mughal Persian Bruce knew so well is a skill only a handful of scholars now possess, and the late Mughal period is one almost completely ignored by scholars. Bruce had found a Kurdish café which made excellent gozleme at the back of the BL, and we decamped there each lunchtime. As Bruce ordered Kurdish delicacies in fluent Eastern Anatolian Turkish, we tried to make up our minds which manuscripts looked most promising, and which we should have copied and set to work translating. In the end our choices came down pretty much to pot luck.

This became apparent in the autumn of 2016 when Bruce moved back into the farm again to begin work on the mountain of photocopies which had just arrived from London. The first manuscript he read through was the Ibrat-Nâma or Book of Admonition of Fakir Khair ud-Din. This sounded most promising, and was, he wrote in an early note, ‘full of metaphorical allusions to the political turmoil of the late eighteenth century, such as the tûfân-i haul-afzâ, a typhoon storm which increases a sense of terror, or the Sea of Oman which robs you of your conscious rational mind. For the admonitory purpose of this history is this: by considering these past lives, take heed for your own future.’

Sadly, the text turned out to be focused for much of its length on the reign of Akbar and Jahangir, a full century before the birth of our hero, Shah Alam. This became apparent within a few days, but, as Bruce himself put it, ‘I am a bit like [the liner] the Queen Mary. Once I’m at full steam, it takes weeks to turn me around.’ By the end of that year, Bruce’s translation notes were full of gems such as the following:

(8 recto) The 4th regnal year, anecdote of a qalandar visiting the court of Shah Jahan with a large tame lion called La’lKhan, who seizes a naked Yogi and mates with him as with a lioness, leaving him prostrate after an effusive ejaculation, but with no scratch or bite marks.

It was all fabulous stuff, but of absolutely no use to The Anarchy. So when Bruce returned the following autumn in October 2017, I did my best to keep the liner more closely on course. With this in mind, the week of Bruce’s arrival, I persuaded him to head off to the small Rajasthani town of Tonk. There, the former Nawab’s library was said to contain a previously unstudied and untranslated full-length biography of Shah Alam by Munshi Mohan Lal. There was, however, a good reason why no one had ever studied the manuscript: the library’s rules were incredibly strict and forbade the use of laptops, photocopies or cameras. Bruce duly went there, drank endless cups of tea with the librarian, helped him with his English correspondence, attended his family wedding, exercised his charm to the full, and before long had been allowed, against all the rules, discreetly to photograph the whole manuscript on his phone.

Historian William Dalrymple.
Historian William Dalrymple.

Shortly afterwards, on a trip to Pondicherry, Bruce befriended the scholar Jean Deloche of the École Français d’Extrème Orient. He returned bearing copies of a number of eighteenth-century French travel accounts of India—Madec, Gentil and Law—but the real find was Deloche’s long-out-of-print critical edition of the Voyage en Inde du Comte de Modave, 1773–1776. Modave, it transpired, was an urbane friend and neighbour of Voltaire from Grenoble who had cast a uniquely sophisticated and sardonic eye on the eighteenth-century Indian scene, from the boulevards of Company Calcutta to the ruins of Shah Alam’s decaying Shahjahanabad. Moreover, not a word of his book had ever before been translated into English. Bruce knew immediately that he was on to a winner, and emailed a sample passage to me from Pondi:

The Empire held together while Aurangzeb reigned, and even for some years after he died in the early years of this century. For generally beneficial laws have a certain inner strength which allows them, for a time, to resist the assaults of Anarchy. But at last, about forty years ago, a horrible chaos overtook the Mughal empire: any spark of good that Aurangzeb had done to promote commerce was snuffed out. Ruthlessly ambitious Europeans were no less deadly in these parts. As if Europe and America were too small a theatre of war for them to devour each other, pursuing chimeras of self-interest, undertaking violent and unjust resolutions, they insisted on Asia too as the stage on which to act out their restless injustices.

Bruce’s beautifully elegant renditions of Modave, Gentil, Khair ud-Din, Shakir Khan, Munna Lal, and the anonymous Tarikh-i-Ahmad Shahi are, I think, some of the very best work he ever did. Indeed, his last three Delhi winters, 2017, 2018 and 2019, were probably his most productive.

As well as his own work, he kept a sharply critical eye on mine and never allowed me to get sloppy. On one occasion, I sent off an article on Qajar Persian painting to a magazine which he believed to be inaccurate. He took it upon himself to ring up the editor, without telling me, and make various corrections before it went to press. Perhaps precisely because it was so easy to dismiss Bruce’s scholarship as that of a showy peacock or some willowy dilettante, he was especially rigorous about double-checking every small detail. His translations always contained the exact Persian transliterations of every sentence translated in case the accuracy of his work was ever challenged. Sometimes whole weeks, even months were lost cross-checking obscure points of Mughal court protocol or regalia: who exactly was eligible to carry the Fish Standard, the mahi maratib? Which Nawabs were eligible for alams? ‘Willie, a word in your ear,’ he would say. ‘Please make sure to double check the details of the battle standard of the third Nawab of Murshidabad. I know you laugh, but these things are very important.’

Equally, he could also be scathing about those who did not meet his own high standards. ‘Wanting to massacre Professor X,’ he texted me one afternoon. ‘He is incapable of giving a correct page reference, so finding the original for his dodgy translation is like wading through a bog! He just doesn’t know Persian, at least not in any idiomatic fashion. And as for his Hinglish—Gawd spare us!’

By now, Bruce had got into his routine. When he woke, which would often be in mid-morning, he would eat an elaborate breakfast of café au lait, baguette and a thick slice of white President French butter, topped by Bonne Maman apricot jam and Lindt chocolate. All of this would be specially fetched for him, according to minute written instructions, from a particular patisserie in Khan Market.

He would then get into his white pyjamas and sit on a cane chair in the garden, reading through the BL photocopies of his sources, under the shade of a wide-brimmed Cecil Beaton-style straw hat. He liked a small glass of wine or two at lunch, and would often invite friends to join him. Our guest list and lunch parties always became much grander and more exotic when Brucie was staying. The elegant wives of ex-Sri Lankan Presidents, Iranian drummers, British Museum curators, Aligarh Mughal experts, Cambridge musicologists and celebrated Scottish botanists would all make their way out to the farm to see him. Those who were lucky would be treated to post-prandial readings of Persian poetry, accompanied by his translations, during which he might serve mango and limoncello, one of his favourite summer combinations. These lunches often saw him at his sunniest and, depending on the company, most wheezily giggly.

Tales From The Life Of Bruce Wannell— Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist: Eland Publishing, 256 pages, £15 (around  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,400).
Tales From The Life Of Bruce Wannell— Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist: Eland Publishing, 256 pages, £15 (around 1,400).

He would then take a nap, and by 5 p.m. was busy in the kitchen instructing our amazing Bengali cook, Biru, who adored him, on the finer points of making petit-fours or drop scones or crumbling butter shortbread, all of which he loved for tea. This was a meal Bruce took with an Edwardian seriousness, serving it on trays with plates and silver and china teapots. That done, he would then teach Sam Persian for an hour, encouraging him to learn by heart ghazals by Hafez, Rudraki and Sa’adi, long before Sam knew enough Persian to understand any of them. Often their meanings would only become apparent much later when, partly under Bruce’s direction, he began Persian at Oxford. Sam still knows them all by heart.

There often followed an evening gin and tonic with Olivia, when the two would set the world to rights. Intelligent female company always brought out the most private and empathetic side to Bruce, and Olivia was often privy to confidences I was only much later admitted to, if at all: a broken engagement soon after Oxford; the pain of his rejection by his father, who had named him after his favourite Labrador but showed him rather less affection, and who, at the end, cut him out completely from his will, leaving him nothing except for a pair of old brogues; his brief, unhappy—and most unlikely—period as a London tax-inspector; his much-loved sister’s suicide, and the memorial concert of Monteverdi madrigals he had organised in her memory.

Finally, by seven or eight, he was ready to begin work. Unless he had arranged to go to a concert, he would usually skip dinner completely and work all night. Often we would return from Delhi parties long after midnight to see his light burning and Bruce tapping away on the laptop, his half-moon glasses perched at the end of his nose.

His main form of entertainment was to visit the various ruins of Delhi, to go to concerts, and to find pianos to play. He befriended our landlady, who had a lovely grand, and would treat her to evenings of Liszt and Debussy. Somehow Bruce also came into contact with a bespectacled American diplomat from Minnesota who was whispered to be the CIA station chief. The two played Shostakovich duets in a grand mansion under the yellow amaltas blossom of Amrita Shergil Marg, watched over by the American’s fearsome Kazakh bodybuilder wife. They made a most unusual threesome.

Extract from Tales From The Life Of Bruce Wannell: Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist, published by Eland Publishing.

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