Saturday, September 4, 2010

How the homogenization of the sacred diversity of India may impoverish our world (Books - Nine Lives by William Dalrymple)

English-born historian and travel writer William Dalrymple has spent 25 years writing about Asia, particularly India. His Nine Lives bemoans the erosion of the many idiosyncratic and little-known practices of faith, some ascetic, some hedonistic, some bloody, some obsessively non-violent, some monotheistic, others pantheistic, that have co-existed in the region comprising India, Pakistan, and Tibet. One price of the region's modernization is the homogenization of these traditions. Each of the nine lives he chronicles: intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India's metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape.
I have read his writing compared to Tracy Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, a brilliant portrait of the admirable but difficult activist Dr. Paul Farmer, and I would agree. One of Kidder's talents was putting himself into the narrative just enough to make give his reader access to the opinions and the feelings that are the fuel of his narrative, but not so much that the writing becomes about himself instead of his subject. Dalrymple claims that he wishes to absent himself from his narrative. I would say that he fails in that aim, but beautifully and usefully. He is exquisitely open to each of his subjects, yet his writing flows from the sense of impending loss he feels of each way of life that he records here. His narrative is colorful and specific, combining characterization, exposition of back story, or details about the culture or history pertinent to it, yet his economy of narrative gives reader the sense that they are in the presence of his subject, as it mimics the way we quickly get the essence of a person by the information we can take in with our senses when in their presence:
I had seen the tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun in her white sari bounding up the steps above me as I began my ascent. She climbed quickly, with a pot of water made from a coconut shell in one hand, and a peacock fan in the other. As she climbed, she gently wiped each step with the fan in order to make sure she didn't stand on, hurt or kill a single living creature on her ascent of the hill: of of the set of rules of pilgrimage fro a Jain muni or ascetic.
It is this combination of economy and vividness that gives Nine Lives, as a series of separate portraits, such a sense of flow as the depiction of the single and various place that is modern India. Books like this are exactly what keep me reading - insight into people and places completely different from my own realm of experience. A sense of wonder suffuses Dalrymple's expertise as we encounter the subjects of Nine Lives: Hari Das, a theyyam dancer of sacred stories, is worshiped as the evocation of a Hindu god when practicing the ritual, but the rest of the year he digs wells and works as a guard in a highly dangerous prison (jobs typically taken by the lowest classes in India). The devadasis, a once exclusive tradition in medieval Hindu practice of celebrating fertility and sexuality, are in Modern India little more than sex workers, at high risk for STDs. This once sacred tradition is now seen by most as little more than exploitation. The bhopas, singing bards of epic poems like the Mahabharata:
When this 4,000-line courtly poem is recited from beginning to end - which rarely happens these days - it takes five full nights of eight-hour, dusk-till-dawn performances to unfold. Depending on the number of chai breaks, bhajans (devotional hymns), Hindi film songs, and other diversions added into the programme, it can on occasion take much longer. But the performance is not looked upon as just a form of entertainment. It is also a religious ritual invoking Pabuji as a living deity and asking for his protection against ill-fortune.
Most of the bhopas are illiterate, many are still believed to have healing powers.

But lest you believe that Nine Lives is nothing but a travelogue of arcane and esoteric mystical practices, I also found the book illuminating about differences between Judeo-Christian traditions, Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism in ways that are useful to understanding some of the cultural tensions that drive today's political violence. Dalrymple's portrait of Lal Piri, a Sufi mystic (Sufism is a mystical sub-sect of Islam that looks for the divine within the practicer and historically evolved to include poetic scriptures and meditative practices familiar to the local Hindus in an effort to reconcile the Muslim and Hindu faiths) is revelatory about the origins of tensions between Muslims and Hindus as well as Muslims and the West:
Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims both suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to more closely resemble Western Christianity, Islamic radicals opted instead to turn their back on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith. In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Islamic radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the West.

Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband which went back to Quranic basics the rigorously stripped out anything European from the curriculum. One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counterattack the modern West has yet had to face...

If it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the West that has understandably absorbed the Western press, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam...
I found Dalrymple's analysis of the religious influences of a struggle that impacts all of our lives at present very insightful. It is the roots of these conflicts in the realm of faith that drives the willingness of people to suicidal acts of violence. It is usually non-rational bases of experience that motivate people to hysteria and the certainty that they are right and all others wrong. It is among the, for want of a better phrase, practical uses of Dalrymple's observant and fluidly written book that he can use the political and cultural context of his nine portraits of seemingly irrelevant Asian mystics to give one blogger in New York City insight into his own life and some of the more pressing forces impacting it. Equally interesting was the conflict of Hindu traditions valuing asceticism in some instances and celebration of the sensual on the other - a tension evident in my own Puritain-founded country in the context of contemporary culture's celebration of diversity and tendency to reveal all.


Unknown said...

This sounds fascinating. I've had India on my "must visit" list for almost 3 decades now. Sounds like this would be a good form of vicarious travel as well as an informative book on Indian culture.

Ted said...

CB - It's on my list too, but who knows when THAT is going to happen!

verbivore said...

Sounds like a great read, I've added it to my list. Your comment on how Dalrymple fails to remove himself from the narrative, and that this is a good thing, makes me think about nonfiction in general and how difficult the narrative perspective must be. Clearly, in a book like this, the narrator's love for the subject goes far to bringing the reader closer to the emotional experience of doing all the research...but so many writers fail to do this elegantly, making the book too much about themselves. Must be a very difficult writing experience.