Nine Lives : William Dalrymple

I have just finished reading the latest book by William Dalrymple, The Nine Lives. I have enjoyed all books of this author that I have read, City of Jinns, White Mughals and The Last Mughal.

His presentation of Indian history in the format of novels is a great contribution in understanding the period he has written about. Apart from his extensive research, scholarship and writing style, what has impressed me in his writing is the respect he displays for his subject. He does not fall prey to the common tendency of looking down on the people and the country he writes about even though it is a part of the developing world full of disparities. On the other hand, his sensitivity in handling his characters and acceptance of their virtues and foibles is quite different from many of the writers in this genre, Indian and Western who rejoice in being critical and commenting from the mental ivory tower in which they so obviously place themselves. The format of writing history in a fictional format adds to our knowledge about history as well as giving the discerning reader a lot of enjoyment.

When I picked up Nine Lives, I thought this book must be a collection of short stories either selected by the author or written by him in his idle time. Far from it, these stories are as meticulously researched as his other books. He has used the short story format to describe the multi-hued, many faceted and much misunderstood but magical mosaic that constitutes India. In his usual respectful style he has cast his roving eye on the tremendous variety of communities, castes, regions and religions of this vast sub continent. He has explored the commonality of the threads that have bound such heterogeneous groups through the millennia.

It was easy for me to connect the narrative of each story to personal experiences gathered through the six decades of living in various parts of this vast nation. The differences of language, food, culture and religions encountered everywhere only reinforced the feeling of unity of our people by the way our people accommodate the differences and happily live with each other. It is these differences which truly unite us just like the various pieces of disparate, differently colored and unequal pieces of cloth are stitched with a common thread to make a beautiful eye catching patchwork quilt just like a piece of art.

Each story revolves a central character who becomes a worthy narrator to explain the central theme of the story devoted a particular facet of the Indian cultural mosaic. Even the introduction describes a character very familiar to me. I too knew an insurance manager who had left his young wife and three small children to find peace and solace in the Himalayas in the company of sadhus and mendicants. He will surface every ten years or so and spend a couple of weeks basking in the affection of his wife and family and then suddenly disappear. One has met so many persons like this though their renunciation and motivations could never be understood by me.
Each story that Mr. Dalrymple has picked up, out of the thousands such tales spread like wild flowers in the valley of flowers that is India, is a nugget of gold. He has meticulously researched the background of each story before presenting it to the reader in a simple form to read, enjoy and absorb. He has put down what he has seen, observed and studied without being judgmental. The reader is welcome to form his own opinions though whether to or not to appreciate the variety of cultural strains in the melody that India has been singing since time immemorial. Probably the secret of the survival of religions and cultural streams for over 5000 years can be understood if one absorbs the meanings of these tales, howsoever strange they may appear to one.
The book appropriately opens with The Nun’s Tale, the saga of a Jain nun or sadhvi. Jains and Jainism have survived in India for over 3000 years and it is probably the oldest religion in the world practiced in its original pristine form till date. What is most interesting that the Jains have survived without fighting wars and without inflicting violence on their fellow humans. Reading the tale, one is reminded of one’s visits to the Jain temple, called a Dharamshala, of one’s childhood to listen to the discourses of the various Jain sadhus and sadhvis who stayed there for a few days during their travels. The monks spoke in a simple language exhorting the people to live a virtuous life and be kind to all living beings. Jain’s refusal to eat things growing below the earth, not eating at night and such other practices like cleaning the spot where they will put the next step are beautifully explained in this tale. Jains have maintained their dignity and identity in India without succumbing to identity politics and hope fully they will stay that way. Their lack of rancor has been highlighted by the recent incident burning down of their first ever temple in the Kashmir valley by local fanatics. In the world of today, no group except Jains would have tolerated such vandalism without indulging in revenge violence at a much enlarged scale against the community at large. But the Jains have decided to stick to their vows of Ahimsa and quietly withdrawn from the strife torn valley. Compare it the hue and cry being raised all over the storm brewing over the refusal by Americans to allow the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero.
The dancer of Kannur sends shivers down your spine with its symbolism and the passion it displays. The evils of caste, the exploitation of dalits by Brahmins and the way dance has been used by dalits to make Brahmins bow to them is highly educative. The passion the dancers infuse in their art to the extent that they feel like the Gods they are portraying and the obeisance of Brahmins and upper castes before these ‘Gods’ in Gods own country, Kerala, is a subject which needed to be brought out for others to understand the purity and rigidity of the cultural structures of south India. But it also proves that the underlying faith in the caste structure is what has strengthened the Hindu religion and kept it alive and vibrant down the ages.

The Daughters of Yellama, the story of the devdasis of Karnataka is a tale retold a million times. The author tells it with a lot of understanding and poignancy. How an ancient custom, beautiful in the past has got corrupted over the centuries and reached the present prurient level of cheap prostitution is a question for each of us to ponder upon. The tragedy of Rani Bai’s life, her dreams of a prosperous retirement ignoring her fatal affliction, her inability and unwillingness to abandon her way of life tells you that old established customs are a part of the overall fabric of Indian society and cannot be just wished away. No law can abolish such practices and other methods must be found to eradicate such customs without pushing them underground. There is another tale, that of the community of Eunuchs which are spread all over India and are for more numerous. They used to be a part of the family rituals and social network of the old Indian rural structures as well as royal harem guards. The community has been badly stigmatized, criminalized and reduced to the status of beggars and vagrants in modern times. Theirs is a tale which needs the pen of a sympathetic author like Mr. Dalrymple .

The Singer of Epics is another tale of how human faith creates gods out of inanimate objects. Various groups of bards, musicians, artists and dancers infuse godliness in their creations by sheer force and passion of their piety. If the dancer of Kannur feels the god he portrays enters his body when he dances, the singer of epics feels the god is present in his backdrop phad and around him when he is reciting the tale of that particular god. How local heroes became legends over time and then assumed godly powers in the telling of the stories over generations is beautifully brought out by Mohan. The oral tradition has been very strong in the Indian spiritual growth. Shrutis, the holy books passed from generation to generation by word of mouth have preserved these traditions down the ages. The tradition of Katha has been a staple diet of Indian people for thousands of years. The singer of epics in this story, Mohan Bhapa and the reverence he holds for his phad, the scenic backdrop for the story of pabuji, the local hero turned into a god who solves people’s problems through the singer is inspirational. The various levels of reverence and importance in which all the stories from local sagas to Mahabharata and Ramayana are held by the Indians at is actually the thread with which the patch work quilt of this multi religious country with hundreds of languages and disparate regional aspirations has been stitched. It is the story tellers, singers and holy men who have roamed this country through the ages and sages like Adi Guru Shankracharya who went around the sub continent setting up monasteries, temples and mathas from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Puri to Dwarka in the eighth century A.D. who have kept our spiritual and cultural traditions alive. I am reminded of the roaming groups of puppeteers with their husband wife teams, the various Katha Vachaks , sadhus and god men who through their performances and discourses nurtured in us the feeling for our country, culture and religions. I am certain that in the rural and small time India, thousands of Mohan Bhapas are still spreading their magic amongst the vast populace even today.

In the tale of The Red Fairy, the fifth story, placed centrally, by chance or deliberately, the author has tackled the disruptive tendencies which have been trying to tear apart the multi-hued society of India. This is also the only story where the author appears to be judgmental in rightly questioning the concept of ‘Purity’ whose pursuit is dividing the tolerant and accommodative society that is India. It split the subcontinent in 1947 and various other groups have been pursuing the purification agenda in various forms since then. They have not learnt any lesson from the short life of only 24 years that the ‘pure state’ survived and are busy in inflicting suffering on the populace at large through their violent activities. The inspiring tolerance of sufi Islam is obvious in the sanctuary and love provided to a middle age woman of south Bihar who landed in the Dargah of the sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalander at Sehwan Sharif in Sindh district of Pakistan a thousand miles away. How the purists are busy in killing their coreligionists by branding them impure is poignantly highlighted. The only forlorn hope left for the survival of the multicultural frame work of the subcontinent is that love will be victorious over violence. That sufi Islam has tried for a millennium to be the bridge between Hinduism and Islam and is still continuing gives one some hope. The author has succeeded in portraying this conflict in the long story of The Red Fairy and has tried to wish for a solution in the words of the Sain Fakir who says at the end of the story that the killers will ultimately end up killing each other and that the Lal Shahbaz QLander will protect the sufi way of life, their shrines and the tolerant followers. Amen to that.

In The Monk’s tale, the author has taken up the tragedy of Tibet and takes you from the beginning of the Chinese incursion to today. It has always been a mystery to me why Budhism practically disappeared from the land of its birth. It had survived only in the mountain ranges of the mighty Himalayas. Only time will tell if it can survive the Chinese onslaught in Tibet. Hinduism had tried to absorb the Budha in the pantheon of their gods and succeeded admirably. That is the reason India has given sanctuary to the Tibetans and will continue to protect them in future.

The Maker of Idols again high lights the ability of the faithful in India to make gods out of inanimate objects. Dancing, singing, making of idols are all mundane activities which are transformed by piety, passion and faith into creators of Gods. So much pure faith perhaps explains how idol worship has survived in Hindus through millennia in spite of the violence prep rated on them by the monotheistic invaders. It still remains the faith which accepts all avenues to God as true paths and has even accommodated atheists since time immemorial. The devotion of Stpathys to their art is inspirational and is apparent in the magnificent temples of the south. The fear remains that this faith may not be sustainable in today’s world. Still one hopes that it will survive as it has survived till date.

In The Lady Twilight, the author has tried to tackle the tantric system of Hinduism. The practice of blood sacrifices, Kali worship and Shamshan Sadhna has been carefully explored by the author and he has described these practices without raising any questions. This subject has been explored by many writers and thinkers in the past, but still is difficult to comprehend. All paths lead to God if followed with true faith is the only way one can look at the practices and that is what the author has done. It is an important part of the project the author has taken up and the book will not be complete without it.

The Song of the Blind Minstrel, the last of the tales is also the most beautiful. The path of bhakti, love and sanyas that the baul singers of east India have adopted is probably the most enduring. The bauls find happiness in being together and singing their songs without any need of specific gods except the god residing in every individual. That these wanderers can spend their lives roaming around the country living on alms speaks volumes about the generosity of the Indian system. Though the majority of the people are supposedly poor yet they take care of such mendicants and feed them. It makes you wonder whether we are really poor when our hearts are so big. Such groups can be found everywhere across India. I am reminded of the ‘Morepankhi Sadhus’ of Punjab who will be dressed in flowing robes decorated with shells and bead garlands with a peacock feather stuck in their hair. These nomadic groups had vowed never to stand still and will continue to sway on their feet even when waiting for food and alms outside my grandmother’s house. I remember wondering how they sleep with such a vow. May be in his next book the author will research them. Because the Indian Quilt is not made of just Nine Lives, it has thousands of lives each vital in its own way like the ‘Vishnu Sahasra Nama’. Other tales too need telling because these are the threads keeping the country together.

In the end I am very grateful to Mr. William Dalrymple for enriching my knowledge about my own country and there by my life as well as giving me hope that our way will survive for another 5000 years.

Book Launch : Arrack In The Afternoon by Mathew Menacherry

Looking forward to the release of my friend, Mathew Menacherry's book; Arrack In The Afternoon. Here's the synopsis;

Arrack in the Afternoon is a satire set in modern-day Mumbai, which deals with one man’s search for meaning and fulfilment, and how this is subverted by the mores and rigors of the metropolis, the metaphoric “Big City” in which he lives.

The protagonist, Verghese Konnikara, is the quintessential loser, a chronically depressed alcoholic, who decides one day to end it all by throwing himself under a truck on the highway.

Fate however and his own lack of resolve conspire to save him, and then, following a convoluted series of events, he finds himself cast in the role of a godman, a new-age spiritualist who is avidly sought after by some of the most powerful people in the country.

Other characters in the novel include Patricia Murphy, Verghese’s Indo-Irish girlfriend who owns the liquor adda that he frequents, Pillaichan, an ex-commie turned petite bourgeois and Verghese’s closest friend, and Karan Sarin, former pimp turned porn film producer who sees Verghese as an easy means to wealth and power.

The book traces a lurid path through the underbelly of the metropolis and delves into the phenomenon of instant fame, which is now such an integral part of our celebrity culture.

If you'd like to take a peek, check out chapter one.

It's set in Mumbai, so its a definite buy for me! And knowing Mathew, I'm sure its going to be a highly entertaining read.

Curfewed Night : Basharat Peer

I have just finished reading Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. As stated by Khushwant Singh on the jacket of the book, I agree that it is beautifully written, brutally honest and deeply hurtful. It brings out the tragedy Kashmir is going through in sharp relief. The author is honest enough not to suggest any off the cuff solution to the complicated situation on the ground in Kashmir.

I have no problems with what Mr.Peer has written. Where I differ with him is in what he has left out. He has not stated why Kashmir has always refused to integrate with the rest of the country. The only reason I can see is that the valley was predominantly Muslim and was kept so by the politicians of the valley ably supported by the congress governments at the centre. Thus the valley which is physically separated by mountains from the plains of India is mentally miles apart from the Hindus of India. Their call for azadi is actually a demand for another Pakistan based on the age old Hindu Muslim divide which is being given a geographical character since the last one hundred years by the Muslims of the subcontinent. This book is accordingly totally Muslim centric.

I would consider it a great service to Kashmir, Kashmiriat(now dead and buried) and India if a perceptive author like Mr. Peer could look beyond the present, peer into the past and make a guess at the future. He should complete his story give his views on a few vital issues pertinent to Kashmir.

How will the agony of Pandits of the valley be addressed by the valley Muslims? It is not the question of only those Pandits who were pushed out of their homes by the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Muslim militants of Kashmir in the last two decades. Through the centuries Pandits were systematically pushed out of Kashmir and have settled all over India. They too have an inalienable right over Kashmir valley which has to be recognized and conceded by the valley Muslims. Otherwise one day another Palestine will be created in Kashmir valley when Pandits and their descendants assert their rights with the same violence with which valley Muslims are keeping them out today to get their azadi.

What will happen to Budhists of Ladakh? Will they ever be safe under an independent, militant dominated and Islamist Kashmir? What about Jammu and the Muslims in Jammu and areas beyond the valley? There is no way that the Hindus of Jammu will accept to be part of an independent Kashmir, so they will separate. Who will protect the Kashmiri Muslims spread all over India and leading largely peaceful lives once Kashmir is azad. God forbid that there is wide spread reaction against the other Muslim citizens of India, the resulting scenario is too horrible to contemplate.
And what about the Kashmiris, themselves? How will they save themselves from various groups of lawless gunmen supported by a rapacious Pakistan? Can they survive without Indian economic and military support? Will they be glad to become slaves under Taliban and the Pakistani Punjab?

I will also ask Mr. Peer to look at the case of Tamilnadu. Tamils had very similar aspirations to that of Kashmiris in the 1960s. But they adjusted their desires within the idea of India and with their hard work and stress on education they have left most of India behind in progress.

Kashmiri Muslims can still turn back and join the idea of India. Their love for education and the tourism potential of a peaceful Kashmir can make Kashmir one of the more prosperous states of India. If their leaders had chalked out an inclusive future different from the exclusive path they are embarked upon since the 1950s, where would have Kashmir been now? This idea deserves a serious thought.

Write about these questions too, Mr. Peer. Complete the story like a good journalist that you are.

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