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Review: "The Sacred in Modern India"

IMG_7779 Dalrymple takes questions after his readings from 'Nine Lives'.JPG

Photo: "Nine Lives" author William Dalrymple. TRAVELLERS, since the days of Fa-Hien, who visited India in the fourth century, have been mesmerised by the richness of its culture and traditions. In fact, it is from their writings that we know about some of the traditions that have already become extinct. William Dalrymple is an old India hand, who has done several books, including White Moghuls, in which history and imagination blend to provide the reader a breath-taking view of Moghul India, facing the first onslaughts of the British.

In Nine Lives, Darlymple returns to travel writing which is, undoubtedly, his forte but in doing so, he avoids the much-beaten path of chatting up with the taxi driver and dishing up salacious tidbits about the country that are as easily forgotten as they are read. Thus, those who look for the traditional travelogue would be disappointed by this book, which pleasantly seeks to redefine travel writing.

What is particularly noteworthy about the nine people the author meets is that they are no great achievers; in fact, many of them are runaways from “society”. They do not lead any extraordinary lives either, except that each of them represents a little tradition that has withstood the pressures of “modernity”. A common strand that unites the nine is the all-pervading influence of religion, be it Hinduism or Islam or Jainism.

One striking feature of Dalrymple’s narration is that he is never condescending or dismissive even when he meets what you and I would call a “lunatic”, who says a little matter-of-factly, “Before you drink from a skull, you must find out the right corpse”. She is Manisha Ma Bhairavi, who abandons her family in the pursuit of the sacred and starts a new life with a man of her choice, who listens to the cricket score on his transistor radio, while the author interviews her.

Then there is the Jain sanyasin, who gradually reduces her intake of food so that she can stop it forever. Her motive: she will no longer have to miss her best friend and fellow sanyasin who died earlier. The thought that what is attempted is “suicide” does not even occur to her, for life and death have a different meaning for the ascetic Jain, who cannot beg but has to live on alms.

For the Dalit (formerly untouchable) theyyam (folk form of worship) artiste of Kannur in Kerala, what is unique about his profession is that when he is dressed up and performs on stage, even the upper caste Brahmin (priestly class) would touch his feet. But when he digs a well for the same Brahmin, he won’t be allowed to touch even his utensils and thereby “pollute” him! The tradition of the theyyam is the Dalit’s way of getting even with the Brahmins, who have oppressed them for centuries.

When the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) and its sister organisations try to project Hinduism as a monolithic religion with the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as their sacred texts, Darlymple finds in Rajasthan the traditional singers of the Epic of Pabuji, a “600-year-old poem” which is a “fabulous tale of heroism and honour, struggle and loss, and finally, martyrdom and vengeance”.

An unabashed admirer of the Sufi tradition in Islam, which has a lot in common with Hindu mysticism, Darlymple meets Lal Peri, born “in a small village near Sonepur in Bihar”, in the Sindh province in Pakistan. He believes that the spirit of sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalander will protect his shrine from the Saudi-backed Wahhabis who are “traders who sell their faith for profit”. That a popular Sufi shrine dedicated to Rahman Baba was dynamited out of existence in the region is a fact of life Lal Peri would rather forget than remember.

The story of a Tibetan monk, forced to take up arms, first, to defend the faith against the invading Chinese before ending up in India as a refugee along with Dalai Lama, takes a new turn when he is forced to join the Indian Army and fight the Pakistanis in the 1971 war. He atones for his sins by making Buddhist prayer flags in Dharmashala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

When Darlymple meets a “Devadasi” in the state of Karnataka and listens to her story of sexploitation in the name of religion, one knows why Amy Carmichael, the brave British missionary who sought to end the practice in the 19th century failed -- the practice is strongly intertwined with religion. Ironically, the woman who protested, when she was led into prostitution at a tender age, finally forces her own daughter into the world’s oldest profession, of course, to propitiate the Gods!

Idol-worship is central to Hinduism but the art of idol-making is the preserve of a few families, who inherit it, much the same way inheritance happens in dynasty-driven Indian politics. The author’s encounter with one such idol-maker in Tamil Nadu provides a peep into “simple men” creating Gods, worshipped by the millions. But for all the attractions of idol-making, his son is, alas, bent upon pursuing a career in the sunshine IT industry, possibly in the Silicon Valley in the USA!

Anyone who has travelled by train to Darjeeling from Kolkata via Santiniketan, the seat of Viswa-Bharati University, set up by India’s first Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, would have come across the ochre-robbed Bauls, itinerant singers, playing folk musical instruments. Harvard University professor Amartya Sen’s grandfather K.M. Sen wrote extensively on the tradition of Bauls, who are socially looked down upon but are, nevertheless, an inherent part of community life in north Bengal.

In providing pen-portraits of the nine, who also represent nine religious traditions, never once does Darlymple ridicule them or make a caustic remark. What comes across is his enduring empathy, reflected in his willingness to lend them an ear.

Given the various traditions that constitute the 2000-year-old Indian Christianity, it should not have been difficult for the author to choose someone like Sister Vandana, a Catholic nun, who spent her lifetime at Rishikesh, the Hindu pilgrimage centre, singing bhajans (holy songs) in praise of the Almighty and earned the goodwill of one all and the sobriquet “Mataji” (Mother). But this does not detract from the intrinsic merit of Nine Lives that provides a kaleidoscopic view of 21st century India which is as modern as it is ancient.

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