Monday, December 9, 2013

The Age of Kali - William Dalrymple

The Observer might have found it stunning but I thought this was the weakest by Dalrymple I have read yet (totally Indian versus the Outsider view). Probably early years was this, because he does not have the distance from the stories he tells in this book as he did in the City of Djinns.

Dealt with in 6 parts titled The North, In Rajasthan, The New India, The South, On the Indian Ocean and, Pakistan, the Age of Kali looks at an India, a Sri Lanka and a Pakistan from the view of someone who genuinely wants to look under the obvious. Which is good because Dalrymple has a knack for getting the right people, the persistence and the courage to follow up his stories despite the dangers of the tasks involved. If roaming the badlands of Bihar looked dangerous, wait until he walks into the Tamil Tigers den in Sri Lanka and traverses the lawless and trigger happy ammunition dumps in Pakistan. Dalrymple explores each story that interests him deeply and passionately and writes it down convincingly after having had a first hand experience. I envy him his journeys deep into India, parts that I have not been to and would love to, and admire him for bringing forth an India not many would bring to us Indians (our first reaction is to shove it under the carpet or color it). If anything the most dangerous aspect of his book appeared not the landmines or guns and terrorists but the ease with which he pulls down the rich and powerful and makes them into caricatures based on his experiences with them. Will they extend him the same affection and warmth the next time after reading his book I wonder, but maybe they might, for all we know because he has only reported what he experienced.

In the North he travels with Lalu Prasad Yadav and sketches the problems that besiege Bihar, meets student union leaders who are fully armed, travels into Vrindavan which is also called the city of widows where widows come to spend the rest of their lives in abysmal conditions and takes us on a rather cynical tour along with the Rajmata of Gwalior. In most cases he pokes fun at the leaders and is surprised at the extent of their knowledge or rather their ignorance, their insensitivity and their behaviors. He also writes of how the Indian middle class speaks (a manner reminiscent of the dialogues of Peter Sellers in The Party). I have heard Indians speak all my life - they do not speak like that. It does create a fun element but that is it to me. Don't expect the average Indian to talk or behave like that. (Unless perhaps, they reacted in a different manner to the gora sahib.)

In Rajasthan he covers stories of rape  victim and women empowerment agent Bahveri Devi by the local landlords, the caste wars and covers the death of Roop Kanwar, one of the last known incidents of Sati in modern India. In each incident he travels and meets the concerned people and gets some idea into why and what of the incident. That people thong the site of the Sati is a matter that shows the Indian rural psyche more than the horror of what the custom demanded of the women - to burn themselves on the pyre of their dead husbands alive. But then the focus in India today is on the amount of harassment women face, the way they are killed or forced to kill which we see everyday.

In Bombay we go to the swish set that he categorically slices through for its superficiality, choosing to go with one of its main patrons Shobhaa De, and exploring the upper crust. He shoots down Shobhaa De and her set with no difficulty - only I wonder at why one would do that when he is her guest. Nothing much to learn from this episode for me. In the next we travel to Bangalore and its KFCs and the anti-western agitations by farmers.

In Madurai we go to the Meenakshi temple and then come over to Hyderabad. I could not recognize the Hyderabad he painted through the eyes of his source despite having lived here for four decades though I fondly remembered the one palace that he touched upon - the Irram Manzil palace which is where my father worked as  Chief Engineer, National Highways a few decades ago. Gold, diamonds, wealth, Nizams, forgotten legacies, palaces etc flash through and a bleak look at the Hyderabad of today without its glamour and wealth. Further down south he goes to the temple of Parashakthi, the goddess who creates and destroys. All through he retains an air of skepticism that any rational mind may carry with beliefs in religion and ritual.

To Sri Lanka, Jaffna, meeting the Tamil Tigers and the Freedom sisters, giving us an understanding of what actually seemed to have happened, the countless deaths, the gore and violence, Dalrymple travels through landmine infested roads, meets Tamil generals, even the Freedom sisters and returns, having had enough of the violence. From there he moves on to some island in the Indian Ocean which was rather boring to me.

In Pakistan he meets Imran Khan and once again gives a rather disbelieving account of the cricketer, playboy and politician. He travels with Imran to shoot clay pigeons, meet some war lords, bump into police checkposts and discusses Pakistani politics from Imran's point of view but not fully - he keeps digressing into Imran's personal life and underlines a lack of credibility perhaps of a playboy-cricketer to do anything noble. From Imran he hops onto Benazir Bhutto and pulls her down even lower, expressing total disbelief that she should read Mills and Boons, or even find Freedom at Midnight an interesting read. Dalrymple says clearly that 'Freedom at Midnight' is total crap (or schlock) and must not be read by anyone who has any claims to be a leader or of anything to do with brainy activity. (While at that he also quotes someone who says that Imran is called Im the Dim with good reason). I cannot agree with this really - erudition is fine but leadership has nothing to do with that surely. It is good in the colleges and in discussions - leadership is not just that and in most cases may be hampered by such thought. So I am fine with the Mills and Boons and even Tom and Jerrys as long as one can lead.

There is a meeting with the people who were at Lahore during partition and well nothing that he has mentioned here disputes what the authors of Freedom at Midnight mentioned in their book. Killings aplenty in Lahore and Amritsar in what most people know is perhaps one of the world's biggest mass killing - thanks to whoever signed and decreed that there would be two nations made from one. Some more travels in the north west frontier and a meeting with Imran's Pir who tells Darlymple to focus on his Delhi book. We come to the end of the Age of Kali.

Dalrymple seeks to find the unsaid, the undiscovered and presents it well. The experiences he has chosen to have are not what many would want to, especially in India. I was also thinking that it perhaps is more difficult to do half the things that Dalrymple did in India as an Indian because suddenly all the biases come alive when an Indian shows up at the doorstep. Caste, creed, colour, community, region, language, sex and many more biases come up instantly. With the Indian obsession with fair skins and foreigners, it is much more easier to ask many questions and receive politically correct answers about honour and pride when it is pretty clear to all concerned that it is a crime that is being committed. Most westerners would find the book stunning and I am sure even I was impressed because Dalrymple presents a real story - its all true. But believe me, this runs deeper, through many more layers that it may not be easy to capture it in its entirety. The frame with which the  average Indian sees the world around him is colored by so many shades that it is impossible to take his or her behaviors or answers at face value. Rituals, dogmas, temples, gods, history all combine here and one can get a glance at best, from one angle.

Is this what exists in India today? It does. And it does not. I have heard of many of these incidents but are they common place? No. What is common place? That there is large scale looting by politicians. That there is lawlessness in some regions, some more than the others. That there are more bride burnings, suicides, honour killings that go on which cause concern and not the one Sati that happened. That there is violence that coexists comfortably a shade away from our lives just as ritual and faith healing does (in fact faith healing has many more interesting shades to it that the western mind cannot accept).

That most people barely sustain their lives but still get themselves a television and a satellite connection and a mobile phone. That the super rich and the super poor, the oppressors and the oppressed, share the same air and water, and find hope and laughter, puts the past behind them and go to the same temples, mosques, movies. uses the same transport ad so on and so forth. There are the odd pockets, the angles where the old mindsets may prevail, but by and large India and its present generation has its happy stories. Dalrymple chooses the bleak and hopeless stories that appeal more to an audience that perhaps sees it easier to get horrified, to judge, to wonder at this sort of a thing - but it cannot be very different in any society. Explore deep enough, scratch the oddball under the surface and lo, you will find all these characters and more in every society in the world. Whether they call it the Age of the Kali or something else we bother not. It is enough for me to see the little urchin on the road smile just as his mother does because they can find happiness in their existence and do not seek or need to find the horror in someone else's life to make their own seem good. For all those who are stunned, I would say, good for you chief. But hold that judgement. Its pretty much the same story everywhere - only the degree varies, the complexity varies.

But despite all that I feel, credit goes to Dalrymple for his work, for providing a view I could never have got. He still remains one of my favorite writers of history and of travel and I am waiting to get down to the next one by him.

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