Thursday, November 26, 2009
A spiritual odyssey
Acclaimed author William Dalrymple’s latest book, ‘Nine Lives’ is a remarkable look at individuals whose lives have been transformed by their religious beliefs
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day in 1994, author William Dalrymple was on his way to Kedarnath. Along the way he met a Naga sadhu. On close interaction, Dalrymple was surprised to know that the man had an MBA and worked for the Kelvinator company.
“Immediately, all my preconceptions disappeared,” he says. “You assume that a sadhu is from a village, maybe, less educated and a simple man. But that was not the case.”
This was the starting point of the book, ‘Nine Lives -- In Search Of The Sacred in Modern India’, which was published a month ago, in India. It is a remarkable book because of the remarkable people portrayed in it.
So, there is a skull feeding tantric who has two sons who are opthalmologists in the USA and an idol maker who is an orthodox Tamil Brahmin. The others include a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a Baul singer, a devadasi, a goat herd from Rajasthan who knows an ancient 4000-line sacred epic by heart, and Hari Das, the Theyyam dancer from Kannur.
“Hari Das had the most impact on me,” says Dalrymple. “At 8.30 one night, I found myself walking along a muddy path between paddy fields in Kannur. The road had run out.” Dalrymple trudged for an hour before he reached a forest where there was a kavu (shrine). Around 400 people were present.
To quote from the book about Hari Das: ‘His eyes were wide, charged and staring and his whole personality seems to have been transformed. He made a series of spectacular leaps in the air as he circled the kavu, twirling and dancing, spraying the crowd with showers of rice offerings.’ (Incidentally, during Dalrymple’s book tour in Australia, next May, Hari Das will be performing at the Sydney Opera House).
It is remarkable how well Dalrymple has chronicled the nine lives, when you realise that the only Indian language he knows is Hindi. “This is a problem any Indian writer would have faced had he worked on the same geographical terrain,” he says. “Nobody can speak Tibetan, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam.”
So, Dalrymple had to depend on interpreters, but he was very careful in his choices. “They were people who deeply understood the culture I wanted to write about,” he says.
In Bengal he traveled with Mimlu Sen, the author of ‘Baulsphere’, one of the best books on the Baul singers. In Rajasthan he worked with Prakash Dan Detha, the nephew of the great writer of Rajasthan, Vijay Dan Detha.
“By the right selection, I turned what might have been an obscuring filter into an eye-opening asset,” he says.
Thanks to his best-seller status, Dalrymple is also an asset to his publisher, Penguin. He had come to Kochi a couple of days ago to do a reading. In person Dalrymple comes across as an affable and down-to earth person. But that did not detract from the fact that he is a heavyweight author.
All his previous books -- on history, travel, spirituality, and journalism -- have won major awards. These include the Wolfson Prize for History, the French Prix D’Astrolabe, the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature,’ as well as the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography.
Bear in mind that most of the books are on historical subjects. So it gives an indication of the power of the writing that he has got ordinary readers interested in these difficult topics.
“The option is simple,” he says. “Do you write in a dry scholarly way, or in literary English? It’s only in the last fifty years that there has arisen a belief that serious history should be dense and boring and written in jargon. But there is nothing in human experience that has to be written in jargon. You can do it in simple language. Clarity is something that I strive for.”
And the end result is there for all to see. ‘Nine Lives,’ has already sold 50,000 hardcover copies in India and is No 1 on the best-seller lists. “The most surprising aspect is that this book has done better in India than in England,” he says. “So I am very happy about that.”
Dalrymple is also very happy to be in India. Born a Scot, he has been living in Delhi for the past 25 years. He says the pluralism of India is its most alluring aspect. “I am amazed it exists,” he says. In Scotland, everybody has the same skin colour, culture, and religion. “In India, there are 50 religions and 70 languages,” he says. “There is so much of material to write about.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)