Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2011  



India Nine Times Over


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Dalrymple, William Nine Lives, In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, Bloomsbury, London, 2009, ISBN-13: 978 1 4088 0061 4, 284 pages.


Now, sitting by the side of the road, I look for them.
Remembering these Hindu wanderers, tears well up.
They were so very kind to me.
They radiated brightness.
Yogis are many, but it is these wandering sadhus that I love.

—Shah Abdul Latif, 18th century Muslim poet


(Swans - April 11, 2011)   Travel writers from the West arrive in India with one of two scenarios. They tell of a pushy, globalizing middle class that has driven commercial expansion to rival China's. They are awed by the sixty-six resident billionaires whose wealth totals a fifth of the gross national product. They cite the World Factbook of the CIA to show that the Indian economy will surpass the American by 2050. They describe a nation that has nuclear weapons and the backing of the U.S., which of course needs India so it can keep both American feet in Southeast Asia. When the Afghan spot of bother is history, the story goes, India will play an enlarged role there. The U.S. can then set aside its opportunist good will toward Pakistan and side with Delhi all down the line.

The other travelers' tale Western writers tell of India doesn't dawdle over the middle class, pointing out that it amounts to no more than five percent of India's one thousand million people. This scenario dwells on the eight hundred million that live on two dollars or less a day, the chronically underfed majority who are bled by caste friction and are forever being swept under the national carpet. It's a majority from which they subtract the 3,000 Muslims that were massacred by Hindu extremists in Gujarat in 2002 and the 200,000 indebted farmers who have committed suicide since 1997. However, it does still count the forty million tribal people displaced by dams, industries, power projects, and other land grabs since Independence.

Such matters are crushing even only to think about. The uncaring, predatory middle class and the too vulnerable, scarred 95 percent both make our heads swim. Dalrymple's title seems to offer relief. The look at the sacred that he promises should be reassuring. He intends to evoke the startling variety of religious and spiritual traditions and practices alive on the subcontinent. He will get to know nine remarkable individuals and in the intimacy of friendship ask them about their lives.

A veteran travel writer, Dalrymple recalls how in the 1980s his chronicles followed the fashion of the time. He would cast himself as leading man in his adventures among shadowy, exotic people. Now, wiser, he has become the shadow, and sets down the lives and feelings of the people he meets in close to their own words. It's an operation of considerable writerly skill, charged with empathy and sharpened by curiosity but leaving judgments largely to the reader.

Dalrymple's way to wisdom and to becoming arguably the best travel writer working in English has been brilliant and arduous. He began in 1989, at twenty-two, publishing In Xanadu, an account of his trip from Jerusalem to Inner Mongolia. In 1994 he wrote City of Djinns about Delhi; in 1997 From the Holy Mountain examined the entwining of the three monotheisms in the Middle East. His travel writing depended more and more on erudition until he was actually writing social history. White Mughals, 2002, dealt with Anglo-Indian relations in the 18th century; The Last Mogul, 2004, with the fall of the dynasty in 1857.

The surprise of Nine Lives -- surely a result of our naivety -- is that a living spiritual tradition, though it may be thousands of years old, also submits to the pressures of the present. Dalrymple himself can't get over the speed of change:

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late eighties. On returning to Delhi after nearly a decade away, I took a lease on a farmhouse five kilometers from the boom town of Gurgaon, on the south western edge of Delhi. From the edge of the road you could just see in the distance the rings of new housing estates springing up, full of call centres, software companies and fancy apartment blocks, all rapidly rising on land that only two years earlier had been virgin farmland. Six years later, Gurgaon has galloped towards us at such a speed that it now almost abuts the edge of our farm, and what is proudly toted as the largest mall in Asia is coming up a quarter of a mile from the house. Page xiii.

No devotee sets a more anomalous figure in the third millennium than the Jain nun, Prasannamati. Her religion dates from 3000 B.C. and is pretty well absent of God. It insists that every living thing has a soul that mustn't be violated. This means that water has to be filtered before drinking so that a gulp doesn't destroy bacterial life. It means that vehicles should never be used because they might kill insects. The occupation of a Jain nun is to walk the roads of India empty-handed. She cannot beg but must hope someone feeds her.

Yet Prasannamati told Dalrymple she came from a merchant family of the thrusting middle class. She traveled the roads clogged with new Tata trucks beside a fellow nun also from a prosperous background. Her friend contracted tuberculosis. Forbidden by Jain principles to consult in time a conventional doctor, she chose to die by starving herself, a Jain ritual. Prasannamati felt guilty over having been emotionally attached to her friend and decided at thirty-eight to end her life in the same way.

Hari Das' people, on the contrary, were dirt poor. He worked digging wells and as a guard in a prison where gang warfare put him in constant danger. But for two months a year, elaborately made-up and costumed, he was a theyyam performer. He danced and sang, portraying a god in village ceremonies. At one point in his performance a trance envelops him and, for both himself and the villagers, he actually becomes the god portrayed. To Dalrymple's question whether his age-old art would continue, Hari Das' said: "The only worry is money. Both my boys are at school, and if in future they can earn more money by learning some other skill, who knows whether they will carry on the family tradition."

Rani Bai's profession will surely survive. She is a temple prostitute, having been dedicated to this life by her parents when she was six. Estimates of dedications vary from one to ten thousand annually. In 1982 the government forbade the practice, but it continues underground. There are a quarter of a million similar women living in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Of their once sacred function, only faint traces remain, and dedicatees are little more than ordinary sex workers. Rani Bai bemoaned her fate while admitting that she couldn't meet her family obligations doing anything else. That's why she had dedicated her two daughters to the same protective goddess. Both afterwards died of disease in their teens. Rani Bai liked the savor of religion about her work. She told Dalrymple she hoped to retire to a small plot of land and tend goats and water buffalos. But someone else told him that Rani Bai had been HIV-positive for eighteen months.

Mohan and his wife Batasi were singers of epics. These poems had become sacred rituals and their recitation amounted to a religious ceremony. They contained thousand of verses that had to be learnt by heart. Mohan told Dalrymple that young people were no longer much interested in the epics, or they preferred to watch highlights on DVDs or cable TV. It was questionable how long there would be an audience for the all-night performances.

Lal Peri was known as the Red Fairy in the Sufi shrine in Sindh over the Pakistan border where she had taken up residence. She was a big woman, always dressed in red, who was never without a wooden club in her hand. Her past had been marked by poverty and communal strife in different parts of India. She found a home in Sindh, which was midway between Hindu India and the Islamic Middle East and had long been a center of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. But the tolerant, dogma-free Sufis were now under siege as heretics by Wahhabi rigidity and Saudi money. Lal Peri was clearly ready, club in hand, to offer resistance. She told Dalrymple, "The Wahhabis are traders who sell their faith for profit. They are not true Muslims -- just fuel for the fires of hell."

Poverty and persecution also marked the life of Passang. A Buddhist monk since childhood, he ran off to the hills with a rusty musket when Mao's soldiers arrived. In retaliation they tortured his mother to death. He fled from Tibet to India with the Dalai Lama. There he was enrolled in the army and sent to fight in Bangladesh. He found himself killing Pakistanis when his only grievance was with the Chinese Maoists. An old man, he confided to Dalrymple that he could never forgive himself for yielding to hatred and soiling his monkish vows.

Srikanda was a maker of bronze temple images, twenty-third craftsman in a family line that stretched back to the middle ages. Business was good. He had orders from the London suburbs and California. Dalrymple was clearly disconcerted by his very Hindu assertion that the bronze figures were actually the god himself. But when did the metal become divine? Several answers were forthcoming: the moment when the faithful believed so or when the sculptor entered in trance or when the workman added the last touch giving the statue eyes. As so often in India, there were truths, no one truth.

Manisha was a devotee of Tara, "one of the most wild and wayward of Hindu goddesses." She lived in a hut on a cremation ground because she felt Tara, who had a liking for bones and skeletons, was present there. The people who oversaw the cremation ghats furnished Manisha with skulls. Those of suicides and virgin girls had special powers. Manisha used them for inspiration in advising troubled people who came to her hut. Her own life had furnished a broad experience of horror: near starvation as a child, semi-enslavement in a jute mill at puberty, forced marriage to an unknown at sixteen. Dalrymple understood why she preferred the company of goddess Tara and her new husband Tapan, a Tantric ascetic who listened to cricket matches on a radio in the back of her hut.

Of the cremation ground:

There is a palpable sense of community among the vulnerable outcastes, lunatics and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom. In turn, they look after one another and appear to tolerate one another's eccentricities. It is a place where even the most damaged and marginal can find intimacy and community, and establish their own center of gravity. Page 216-7.

Dalrymple heard from Manisha of the blind singer Kanai. He was a Baul, which translates as "mad" or "possessed." The Bauls are wandering Bengali minstrels. Though ascetics and holy men, they are in some ways the negation of many Indian attitudes. They refuse all caste distinctions, believe in no afterlife, and recognize God only in the physical body of seekers of truth. Each Baul is left to find his own way. He has only to give up his possessions and take to the road under the guidance of a guru. Music is the stuff of his existence and songs are his devotions. Love reigns supreme, exalted by Tantric sex lore.

The Bauls have held an annual festival in Bengal for the last five hundred years. Dalrymple attended and sought out Kanai. The blind singer who came from absolute poverty had been joined by a young musician, Debdas, to form a performing couple. Debdas had been disowned as a boy by his comfortable Brahmin family because he dared to associate with Muslims and members of lower castes. The two men lived the Baul ideal and sang:

Who knows if the gods exist at all?
Can you find them in the heavens?
Or the Himalayas?
On the earth, or in the air?
Nowhere else can God be found,
But in the heart of the seeker of Truth.

No better coda for a book free of all pretention, full of humanity and glowing with curiosity.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 11, 2011