Sacred India is tempted
British author William Dalrymple frets that his adopted country could drown in its newfound wealth
British historian William Dalrymple kept listeners enthralled at the recent Sea Write Awards dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel with passages from his first travel book in 10 years, â??Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern Indiaâ?. Indians too are enthralled: Theyâ??ve so far scooped up 50,000 hardback copies, making it far more popular there than in Britain or the US. â??Itâ??s a strange development,â? Dalrymple chuckled. â??I used to think I was writing for people back home! â??When I was writing it, I thought this would be the book the desi would be most sceptical about, because thereâ??s always so much rubbish about Indian religions written by Westerners.â? He was being modest, surely. The Indians honour him by calling him Dalrympleji. Heâ??s famous in the country heâ??s called home for 25 years, constantly documenting its transformations.The Scottish-born Dalrymple now resides in New Delhi with his wife Olivia and their children. Expressing surprise at Indiaâ??s pace of economic growth, Dalrymple asks in â??Nine Livesâ? whether the country still offers any spiritual alternative to materialism. The nine lives of the title are those of people considered holy in their respective religions. There is the Jain nun, grieving the death of a friend, who decides to commit suicide by starvation. There is a dalit well-digger whoâ??s maltreated daily by upper-caste Brahmins, but for two months of every year they clamour to touch his feet when heâ??s dancing as a god in â??Theyyamâ?. A Buddhist monk renounces his vows to defend his faith against the Chinese in Tibet, and instead ends up fighting Pakistanis in the Bangladesh war. He now shows repentance by making exquisite prayer flags. â??The response from Indian readers has been very positive, perhaps because thereâ??s nothing mean in the book,â? Dalrymple said. â??Itâ??s not me imposing my views on India, but acting as a mirror.â? Modernisation is wreaking havoc in Indian life, Dalrymple reckons, particularly in religion. He joked unhappily that there are two different Indian stereotypes in the West. â??One is the nail beds, fakirs, naked sadhus, the Ganges, the elephants. The other is computer geeks and Bangalore. â??In my book these two stereotypes butt against each other. Bangalore isnâ??t the real India anymore than Gandhi and his spinning wheel was. There are millions of Indias that have different reflections, both modern and traditional. Each setting has a different impact on modernity and tradition.â? Dalrymple laments the shift in popular devotion from the rural spirits of trees and fields to the â??hyper-national, macho heroâ? gods like Rama and Krishna. â??In urban and political settings in particular, the rise of Lord Rama is something you can track historically from being one deity among many in the 18th century to dominance in north India. A 1780 survey by the East India Company found 7 per cent of northern Indians devoted to Rama or Krishna, Dalrymple noted. â??Today the figure has risen to 60 per cent. â??The whole point of my book is that nothing is the same. Itâ??s a huge mistake to see India as static. Itâ??s changing every day.â? Witnessing the change has been stimulating but frustrating for Dalrymple. India can teach the world about pluralism, among other things, he said. Sporadic Hindu-Muslim clashes aside, people get along despite significant ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. â??India is a great example of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual state where, more or less, these different cultures and languages are managing to coexist. Different cultures have managed to form a coherent nation-state. â??People do believe in India. India has held together despite separatist movements.â? Yet India is flawed in many ways, he admits. There is democracy, but the middle class has managed to impose its will on the poor. Foreign policy is also lacking â?" Dalrymple sees China as the real threat to India, not Pakistan. Viewing corruption in the religious context, he blames it on Hinduismâ??s lack of a clear concept of evil. â??People in some parts of India still worship Kali,â? he said, referring to the Hindu god of evil and destruction. â??But itâ??s a dodgy premise, because thereâ??s worse corruption in Pakistan, and there are no Hindus there!â? He said itâ??s wrong to blame religion for failing to offset Indian corruption. The gods donâ??t reside in the psyche, providing benefits.â??You may say Christianity puts a positive emphasis on education, but thereâ??s sexual repression in some Catholic countries, too. â??I think the ascetic reactions in the history of religion in India, though, were all reform movements that attempted to clean up what the reformers saw as corrupt. The Buddha preached the way he did because he was appalled by the sensuousness and materialism of the early city-states in Uttar Pradesh. â??And I think there has always been a strong tradition of materialism that led to periodic spiritual reactions. The world the Buddha or the Mahavira was reacting against was the world of karma sutra.â? For all its shortcomings, Dalrymple stressed, India has much to be proud of. When the British arrived in the 16th century, India was the richest country in the world, ranking alongside Ming Dynasty China â?" â??huge exports of textiles, spice, silk, an enormously rich countryâ?. By the time the British left in 1947, India was a Third World ruin, he pointed out, its industries and traditions destroyed. â??In 60 years, India has come back from that. Maybe itâ??s not yet a superpower, but maybe within our lifetime. â??And while Indian democracy is very flawed, I think if you look at where India came from 60 years ago, the leaps that have been made forward are remarkable. Iâ??m full of hope for the future.â?