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Updated: October 1, 2011 12:38 IST

The Proust Questionnaire - "Villains are always more fun than heroes" - William Dalrymple

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William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple

What is your idea of happiness?

Walking — either along a warm Goan beach or up in the Bhutan Himalayas — and knowing a convivial dinner lies at journey's end.

What is your greatest fear?

Death of loved ones — perhaps especially my children, having nearly lost my youngest when he was a week old.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I'd wave a magic wand and magically return to my 18-year-old waist and hairline. Second choice would be to somehow gain the ability to be punctual.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

I rather wish we'd had a fourth child. Especially another girl.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My children — all of them; followed by my books, especially “From the Holy Mountain” and “The Last Mughal”.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I have often dreamt of the idea of waking up and finding myself transformed into one of my White Mughals — Sir David Ochterlony, James Kirkpatrick or William Fraser: what a time to have lived!

Failing that, Peter Cook always said he'd like to be born again as the Governor of the Bahamas. Not a bad choice all in all. And you get to wear a hat with ostrich feathers.

What is your idea of misery?

A book that is going wrong and not knowing how to mend it. Also being stuck inside all day — one reason I could never live in my native Scotland in winter. I don't think I could ever take imprisonment. Almost as bad: a day at the keyboard with nothing to show for it.

Where would you like to live?

Very happy oscillating among Delhi, London and Scotland, though I might throw in a Himalayan cottage or a Kerala beach house as well if I won the lottery. And maybe a nice colonial villa near Angkor Wat. Plus, if it was a really big lottery win, a Tuscan villa in an olive grove near the Abbey of St. Antimo and a modest Georgian mansion near Rievaulx Abbey in the North York Moors.

What is your favourite occupation?

Am closing the bedroom door on this question immediately. But also: Walking in wonderful landscapes, exploring ruins, stumbling over great art in unlikely places and listening to great music. Another top pleasure: writing the final full stop to a book, and knowing it's as good as you can possibly make it.

What is your most marked characteristic?

My wife Olivia would say: lateness (talking of which, this column was commissioned some six months ago....)

What do you most appreciate in your friends?

Loyalty and love

Who are your favourite authors?

Other than Shakespeare, among novelists: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Capote, Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy. Among writers of non-fiction: Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Robert Byron, Steven Runciman, Robert MacFarlane, JA Baker, Sir Thomas Browne.

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

The villains in fiction are always more fun than the heroes — give me Macbeth over MacDuff any day. But I love Anna Karenina and also Pierre in “War and Peace”.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Patrick Leigh Fermor because of his combination of the life of the mind and the life of action, the fact that he wrote wonderful books and built the most beautiful imaginable house with a good cloister in the most perfect bay in the Peloponnese. The perfect writer's life.

What are your favourite names?

Was always fond of the name Silas. Would have called one of my boys that if the word was not so close to silage and if Silas Marner had not been such a difficult old bugger.

What is your present state of mind?

Wishing I didn't have a huge list of chores to finish and wanting to get on with my new book, “The Return of the King: Shah Shuja, the Great Game” and the West's “First Defeat in Afghanistan”, due out next May.

How would you like to die?

As peacefully and painlessly as possible. Would it be nice to die in flagrante delicto? Not sure. But happy, and in my bed, certainly.

What is your favourite motto?

I've always had a fondness for our slightly bizarre family motto: ‘Firm'. Sadly it no longer describes my tummy. But we're working on that.

What is the quality you most like in the opposite sex?

In both sexes: warmth and kindness, closely followed by intelligence and wit.

William Dalrymple is an award-winning historian, travel writer, broadcaster, critic, art historian, foreign correspondent and a founder and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival, Asia's largest literary festival. His books include White Mughals, The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 and Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

The Proust Questionnaire is a fortnightly feature which derives its name from the French writer Marcel Proust, whose personality-revealing responses to these questions went on to popularise this form of celebrity confession. This questionnaire was administered by BARADWAJ RANGAN.

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