Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Books in my life: to see ourselves as others see us

Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India. By William Dalrymple.
[Bloomsbury; 284 pp.]

The first book of Dalrymple’s that I read, i.e., before Nine lives, was The last Mughal. I loved it for the portrayal of an India I had learnt of almost furtively, in school. If only we were taught history the way it was narrated here. At several instances, as I read, tears welled up, at the helplessness of Bahadur Shah Zafar, not in himself as a person, bereft though he was, but as the legatee of a virasat completely incomprehensible to his insensitive contemporaries. But who is sensitive in times of war, and rebellion?

When Nine lives was published, I bought it enthusiastically, but it stood for almost five months on the shelves, in line with other unread works, biding its time. Then the author came to Hyderabad, and I resolved, ecstatically, to attend his reading. Lurking behind this wish was the bibliomaniac’s thrill of getting a first edition autographed by the author! How I would savour it for all time!

The evening arrived, and with it the tired-looking Scot. The reading went off quite well. He spoke a bit about the book, and read a couple of sections. There was a Q&A session with some interesting back-and-forth, but not without a display of that irritating habit people have at such moments, of expressing opinions rather than querying.

When I walked up to the table, and asked for an autograph, Bill almost snatched the volume from my hand, flattened it to the title page, asked my name, misspelled it and scrawled something illegible across its top, and middle. No eye contact, no moment of any sort of connect. There was a flight to catch at the end … and so

No sooner did Nine lives resume its place in the lineup on my bookshelf, than a friend borrowed it from the missus! My precious autographed 1st ed! I could only dream of dog-eared pages, and split spines. Thankfully its dust jacket was left behind. Frantically I called the one who held my copy of Nine lives, and she had a good laugh at my genuine discomfiture! But the book came back in immaculate condition.

Now that I’ve read it, I can say that my favourite ‘life’, of the nine, is that of ‘the singer of epics’ (pp. 78–111). I warmed to this story immediately, primarily because it is based in Rajasthan, the land of my forbears (even though I’ve never visited it, except for two trips to Bharatpur, to birdwatch at the famed Keoladeo Ghana sanctuary), and also because it harks back to a time of pastoralism that we urbanites are separated from, but as Indians who survive on a largely ‘backward’ agrarian economy, are able to relate to spontaneously. In this chapter Dalrymple compares that lifestyle to the landscapes and livelihoods in the works of Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Many years ago, conversing with a friend who teaches Russian (he is Indian), I happened to mention that I partook the works of those masters. He asked me why? And I replied that the landscape, the people, and the rahan-sahan, which they wrote of, resembled the leisure and laid-back pathos of Indian pastoralist life.

You must read Nine lives yourself, to sink into the culture of this ancient land, but I’ll take you through some text that I particularly enjoyed. First, there is the incandescent one-liner from the bard, “the flame of my voice only really starts to glow after midnight” (p. 85). Then there is the intimate relationship between the patron and the beneficiary; the thakur and the bard. “Every prominent family of the land-holding Rajput caste, I discovered, inherited a family of oral genealogists, musicians and praise singers, who celebrated the family’s lineage and deeds. It was considered a great disgrace if these minstrels were forced by neglect to formally ‘divorce’ their patrons. Then they would break the strings of their instruments and bury them in front of their patron’s house, cutting the family off from the accumulated centuries of ancestral songs, stories and traditions. It was the oral equivalent of a magnificent library being burned to cinders.” (p. 87).

Before closing I must point you to a review of this work that appeared in Open, which speaks of an uncharacteristic complacency that has crept into this work by Dalrymple. Sadly, I must confess this is true. The editing should have been tighter.

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