Dalrymple on nine extraordinary tales

Last Updated: Tue, Dec 15, 2009 06:27 hrs

Nagarajan Chelliah

‘Dum a dum mast kalandar…’ he starts singing as he talks about Sufism. And William Dalrymple is so connected with some of the cults of rural India that he says his latest book, already a best seller, is about nine interesting lives he came across in the last 16 years.

During his recent visit to Chennai for the launch of his latest book, 'Nine Lives', Dalrymple talks to Sify.com about the threat some of the local cults in India are facing and why he chose these nine lives. He also says the popular belief that the west is materialistic and east is spiritual is utter nonsense.  

Excerpts from the interview

How did you zero in on these nine lives?

Ultimately, because of the power of these individual stories. Initially, I must have started with around 90 interviews – many of which did not go beyond quite a short conversation.  I did long interviews with at least 20-25 people.

I wanted to do write about a jehadi, a Christian – the Archbishop of Kerala - a Karsevak, a Christian in Orissa. But in the end the ones that made were not because they represented Buddhism with capital B or Sufism with capital S, but simply because the stories they told were remarkable. That is the focus of the book.  The book ultimately is about the individuals concerned.  It is about the nine people, nine lives as the title suggests.
Often I would be attracted to a place or a general subject by my interest in art or music or dance. But ultimately the final selection took place on the basis of literary merits and the strengths of the individual stories.
Out of the nine persons, many seem to have forced to choose the path because of circumstances…

If you would divide it anyway, I would divide it as the inherited ones -- the Theyyam dancer, the Pabuji ka phad Bhopa and idol makers were all inherited lineages – and the other six that were thrown into it by fate. But ultimately, the point of the book is the stories.

Nine Lives: William Dalrymple's timely search

Originally I found a much more analytical book on religion in modern India… But I found these stories were so extraordinary that I pulled myself out of it. I tried to write a book in which I was completely absent, and no longer is there any judge or commentator.
The book is not an academic study of religion changing in modern India.
To a western reader, it might be so. But to an Indian who sees all these…

But no Indian may see all these things. A Bengali may know about the Bauls, a Tamil may know about Swamimalai. But no one in this country knows about all of it.
This book is very much aimed at the Indian audience. There is great interest in India for these kinds of stories. And the sales figures speak for this. People may know about Naga sadhus, but they don’t know about these small traditions.

We want to know about your search for the sacred In India. Does India offer an alternative to the materialistic west?

India has always been a materialistic place. That is why we find a tradition of reaction against it. If you look at stories of the Buddha or the Mahavira, they were not inherently mystic or spiritual people. They reacted against what they saw as sensuality, ruthlessness, suffering and materialism of the world.

And the idea that is binary where we have a material west and a spiritual east is complete nonsense. People forget that there is a very strong mystical tradition in the west.

The point is that there are many interesting religious traditions in India and if you ignore them, you are missing out on much of their art, music, philosophy and some incredible poetry.

When you see a picture of the Naga sadhus, they look aliens. Look at their hair. And when you talk to them you are surprised - the Naga sadhu’s son is an accountant with the Tatas, he is a fan of cricket  and he is part of the Indian society . For better or worse, they may be on the margins now.

But the point of the exercise is to humanise the exotic - to give a human face.  This is the story behind them. However, these subjects are in danger.
You said they (the cults and practices) are in danger. Could you explain?

There are some which are in danger. For example, the Pabuji ki phad. The audience, the cattle herders are migrating to the cities. Camel herding is no more an economic and sound way of making a living. So the art is dying.

So what we have is small and regional cults dying away in the face of the national cults – in the north the Ramification of Hinduism and in the south, the Shaivite. In both, the Devi cults in the villages and blood sacrifices are giving and dying away in the face of very nationalist reform and Sanskritic Hinduism.

In Islam, the small village shrines of the Sufis are giving way to the Wahabi, textual, centralised Islam. So that is something that is happening to both religions.

And the Jains are a story by themselves. The Jains are dying in number, but the number of vocations as monks are growing.  In the 70s, the number of monks decreased, but in the last 20 years, the number of monks taking diksha has hugely increased.

Vedic Hinduism is different from Puranic Hinduism, the Puranic Hinduism is different from the reformed. Again the modern Vaishnav Hinduism is different from the 19th century Hinduism. It is in a constant state of flux.

But in the sense this is not in the book. The book is about the lives.
You have said Ramification is a big threat to these cults...

Oh! Yes. But that is not in the book. This book is about the lives.

But if you look at the way, the central gravity of modern Hinduism is changing. A ‘threat’ is too strong a phrase. But if you look at the central gravity of Hinduism, you have a new temple being constructed in the suburb  of Chennai. If it is in Chennai, it is probably a Shaivite temple, and if it is on the outskirts of Lucknow or Allahabad, it will be a Vishnu or a Krishna – it would not an obscure, local deity. These are  the things  that are gradually losing their part.
Do you think you will be able to revisit these nine lives  20 years from now?

Not all of them. I don’t think the Pabu ji is phad will survive in 20 years time. Most of the others will. Who knows whether the Sufi shrine will still be in Sindh– may be, maybe not. The idol making will be there, may be not as a family business, but as a business. The Bauls will still be there.

Everything is in a state of flux. And I am sure this is a transitional period in Indian history. It is not quite yet at the centre of the world stage. But this is a snapshot of various vocations in a period of change.
So, are you planning a part two of it?

I would like to do it. Whether it is necessary to do it now, I don’t know.

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