“Along with poetry, travel writing is one of the oldest literary forms in the world.”
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009) is sublime travel writing from
His guiding question – what does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past? – is answered by the voices of those he interviews rather than through analysis.
This reader was drawn close from the opening pages when Dalrymple relates how his book was born “on a high, clear, Himalayan morning in the summer of 1993”:
Sadhus, India’s wandering holy men, also filled the road in dazzling profusion. As I wandered through the knee-high columbines, buttercups and hollyhocks of the high-altitude pastures, I passed a constant stream of lean, fit, hardy men with matted, dreadlocked hair and thick beards leaping up the track. Some travelled in groups; other travelled alone and many of these appeared to be locked in deep meditation as they walked, weighed down by heavy metal tridents, in an effort to find moksha in the clear air and crystal silence of the mountains.
Dalrymple interacts with a sadhu of his own age and discovers that until four years ago he was a “sales manager with Kelvinator, a Bombay consumer electricals company” rather than a wandering mystic. I had similar experiences in India with these sannyasin mendicants. They may have been civil servants or bankers with grown families who renounce all the trappings of a middle-class existence and walk out their door to wander the pilgrimage routes.
Dalrymple transcends the genre by staying “in the shadows” telling stories that “humanise rather than exoticise” those met on the road. We experience a range of people rather than – as with most travel writers – learn more about the narrator than the subject. The reader meets the idol maker, Srikanda Stpathy, the thirty-fifth in a long line of sculptors. We sit with Hari Das, part-time prison warden who becomes an omnipotent deity for two months a year on stage. The author allows Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan, to seem like one of the most literate men alive as he shares the oral storytelling handed down to him from his father. Tashi Passang, a Buddhist monk and soldier reflects on how a monk can kill a man when it is his duty to do so. Lal Peri, aka “The Red Fairy”, is a Muslim woman made the Sufi Dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in what is the most remarkable of life stories.
Not all of his subjects are likeable and of course it is completely possible to feel an authorial presence, judging, however skilfully he tries to avoid it. Maybe it is the reader vehemently rejecting an aggressive, calculating worldview that feels sinister rather than anything the author does. For example, it is difficult for one who has sympathies with the gentle, almost secular sufism described not to feel horrified at plans to eradicate its presence. Either way, one hears the voice of the subject it seems…but occasionally, a thoughtful reader imagines the process of constructing such a text and what comprises may have been inevitable.
Dalrymple knows there are many paths one can tread in India leading back to tradition rather than to the modern world. This month I had the pleasure of meeting the Nizami brothers – direct descendants of a Sufi saint, Hazrat Khwaja Syed Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325 CE) – at Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah (mausoleum). They returned to the stewardship after being educated and having corporate careers on other continents as their parents valued learning knowing tradition would wait. I did not learn this until having been in their company for some time. It was a bit of a revelation when that became apparent considering the context of visiting such a shrine. The brothers are good storytellers and I cannot but wish I recorded what they had to say. This is why Dalrymple is so good as a travel writer. We hear the voice of the subject, as much as possible, not the writer. He avoids what I have just done in this paragraph.
The Nizami brothers flickr photo by Darcy Moore shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
Nine Lives focuses beyond the political sphere and behind the headlines, on the diverse traditional religious systems of South Asia, and particularly the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities. It is these which are being eroded as Hinduism’s disparate, overlapping multiplicity of religious practices, cults, myths, festival and rival deities are slowly being systemised into a relatively centralised religion that now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the three Abrahamic faiths.
When Dalrymple does provide analysis it is trenchant. The above quote will make sense to anyone who has visited the Swaminarayan Akshardham complex constructed in 2005. Dalrymple sees strong parallels in the way “this new Hinduism is standardising faith to what is happening in South Asian Islam”. He notes that local deities are falling out of favour as “national hyper-masculine hero deities” like Krishna and Rama become pre-eminent in a process scholars call the “‘Rama-fication’ of Hinduism”.
I wish Dalrymple would write more about his understanding of the “slow erosion of Nehruvian secularism in the face of massive revival of middle class religiosity”. He cites an interesting statistic claiming “over fifty percent of package tours organised in modern India are to pilgrimage destinations” without much discussing it. Superstition trumping rationality was a concern evident in several articles in the newspaper during my recent visit. India, our largest democracy, although increasingly modern does not feel very secular to this traveller.
Other titles read during January
City of Djinns: Year in Delhi (1994) by William Dalrymple is an extraordinary piece of travel writing read in preparation for my trip.
A History of British India (2017) by Hayden J Bellenoit is a series of lectures listened to while in India making the experience even more intellectually rewarding.
Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital (2011) by Dave Prager has a dubious title but I enjoyed this down-to-earth expat’s eighteen months working in the capital.
The Elements of Drawing (1857) by John Ruskin is not a page-turner but written in the form of three letters it provides insight into what was a skill almost every educated person possessed to some degree in the 19th century.
How to Draw Almost Everything: An Illustrated Sourcebook (2016) by Chika Miyata is an attractive little book for parents who wish to draw simple pictures for their children.
Great post. I have Nine Lives on my bookshelf and am keen to open it up and actually read it now. Modern Indian literature has an uncanny ability to transport the reader to a very real place and time, much like the 19th Century British writers such as Dickens and Hardy. Perhaps because these are still taught in Indian classrooms, whilst we in the West whittle away with ‘fashionable’ texts that will not pass the test of time.
Your photos were also very interesting. I bet you are missing the food!
Have you any suggestions for excellent contemporary Indian literature?
I wish I had time to read a novel (I have an 18 month old and expecting another bub), but I appreciate your review and have added it to my Goodreads list. I know some English educators who would love to delve into this review with you. Can I please post up until ‘They may have been civil servants or bankers with grown families who renounce all the trappings of a middle-class existence and walk out their door to wander the pilgrimage routes.’ and the picture of the front cover on Australian Education Blogs, please?