Letting India speak for itself
Nick Smith reviews, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple
A lot’s changed in the two decades since the young William Dalrymple published his first book In Xanadu. India has changed, the world has changed and so too has travel writing, he tells us in his introduction to his latest, Nine Lives. In the 1980s, the genre was all about the writer, with the far-flung landscapes and the people who inhabit them relegated often simply to an exotic stage setting. Indeed, while Dalrymple was cutting his teeth on his first India book City of Djinns, another well known travel writer, Michael Palin, was broadcasting Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole to a public that, dazzled by his celebrity, seemed to have developed an insatiable appetite for travel journalism provided it was about the journalist and not about travel.
But fashions change and our objectives have evolved into something slightly more ambitious than simply reporting on how unlike us foreigners are. Palin is now president of the Royal Geographical Society and Dalrymple is recognised as a leading popular historian specialising in India. In the past decade, in terms of book publishing at least, he appears to have turned his back on producing any more of those beautifully rendered travelogues that made his name, preferring to concentrate on delivering the first two volumes of his monumental commentary on the Mughal Empire. He’s also edited Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes, which falls into the same category of historical production. But, there’s been very little in the way of sustained travel writing. And yet, if we are to believe the Guardian, Dalrymple has ‘effortlessly assumed the mantle of Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.’
One of the reasons for his being one of our most important travel writers is that when he turns his hand to the craft there are simply few better than Dalrymple. With Nine Lives he has proven once again that you don’t need to prolific to be of literary importance (Leigh Fermor’s books emerged at a rate of about one per decade). So, even after a decade’s absence from the fray, when the man who gave us From the Holy Mountain says it’s all changed, we’ve ripped up the programme and we’re doing it differently now, it probably makes sense to listen.
What exactly is different about Nine Lives? To answer that question it’s helpful to start with why it’s similar to Dalrymple’s collection of travel journalism The Age of Kali. In Kali he explores the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in India. But you could do that with any country. What’s so fascinating about India is the rate of change, and this is what gives Dalrymple his hook. Thousands of years of unchanging tradition, he says, are under attack from all sides by the skirmishers of the digital revolution. The new India loves technology: but while everyone in the city is becoming a software engineer, drinking Starbucks in their Levis and Ray-Bans, a few miles outside the city men in dhotis are tending the land with agricultural utensils that haven’t changed in five millennia. If you want to express the rate of growth of India’s economy on a graph, just point the line straight up. If it continues like this, by 2050 India’s economy will lead the world.
How Dalrymple chooses to express the changing face of India in Nine Lives is what’s different. Gone is the intrusive self-consciously literary narrator scribbling in an unfamiliar landscape (although Dalrymple can’t resist telling us about his ‘slowly filling… notebooks’). In a moment of artistic self-extirpation he’s banished the central narrator of old, to make room for the people of India tell their own story. So what have we got? Nine people, nine lives, all based on interviews in eight languages and all cracking entertainment.
In ‘The Nun’s Tale’ we are told of friend who undertakes sallekhana, a ritual fast to the death; in ‘The Daughters of Yellamma’ we hear the harrowing story of the devadasi (or temple prostitute) who introduces her two daughters into a trade that she regards as a sacred calling, only to lose both teenagers to AIDS; there is the story of the woman who leaves her middle class family in Calcutta and her job in the jute factory only to find unexpected love and fulfillment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground; and there is an idol maker, the thirty-fifth of a line of sculptors going back to the Chola bronze makers who sees creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India, but has to reconcile himself to his son, whose ambition it is to study computer engineering.
The cast of characters, drawn from different walks of life, with their heart-breaking, life-affirming and often plain weird stories, invites immediate comparison with Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, and to his credit Dalrymple acknowledges this straight away. But this isn’t ‘a modern Indian Canterbury Tales’ as the accompanying PR blurb enthusiastically trumpets, because there’s no pilgrimage to while away, no journey, no raiding of the memory banks of the oral tradition. Nine Lives does something else; something entirely different, more akin to an Impressionist painting, where the deftness of the brush strokes, rather than the detail, paints a subtly textured and unexpectedly complex piece that has Dalrymple’s fingerprints all over it.
That Nine Lives is unmistakably and so assuredly from the pen of Dalrymple is a tribute to his depth of knowledge of the people and places of India. As deployed in his The Age of Kali, his main strengths are his instinctive feel for what details matter, how much they weigh and how to articulate them in his understated, but quite lovely prose. While so many of today’s travel writers shift from territory to territory in search of new thrills, Dalrymple goes deeper and deeper into the landscape of India in order to return with clearer images of the people who live there. And in trying to appreciate their lives, we enrich our understanding of our own, and this is why Nine Lives might well be William Dalrymple’s most important book to date.
Nick Smith writes for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award.
Nine Lives is published by Bloomsbury, £2.00, pp 285 · ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4