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The Older India That Endures

November 27, 2009

Tracking the spiritual quests that make up the
warp and weft of daily life in a modernizing country.
By SADANAND DHUME
The Wall Street Journal
November 25, 2009

India has long been an object of fascination for
foreigners seeking spiritual enlightenment. At
times this takes the form of a travel-show
fixation with rituals performed along the Ganges;
sometimes it's a pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama's
home in Dharamsala. But the country's rapid
economic development brings with it a question:
Does the new India, with its feuding billionaires
and mushrooming call centers, its armies of
reality TV contestants and booming stock
exchanges, still offer a spiritual alternative to
materialism? Or has it become, to quote the
British writer William Dalrymple, "just another
fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?"

In "Nine Lives," Mr. Dalrymple -- who has written
about the subcontinent for 20 years, and is best
known for his forays into Mughal history -- sets
out to answer this question by exploring the
parts of India and Pakistan "suspended between
modernity and tradition." He quickly discovers
that the demands of development often conflict
with India's age-old spiritual traditions. A
sacred grove is challenged by the depredations of
illegal loggers. Villagers in Rajasthan must
choose between continuing to bring their ailing
cattle to an illiterate minstrel who has
memorized a 600-year-old epic or instead turning
to the nearest veterinarian. A distinguished
Tamil bronze caster, the 23rd in an unbroken
family line going back to the 13th century, tries
to persuade his son not to abandon the family
tradition for the glamour of a job as a computer engineer in Bangalore.

In the end, Mr. Dalrymple comes to no firm
conclusion. The traditions "Nine Lives" explores
are often threatened. Yet, in their own way, like
India itself, they are also remarkably robust.
Mr. Dalrymple finds the holy men of modern India
preoccupied with the same questions that absorbed
their ancient counterparts. Among them: "the
quest for material success and comfort against
the claims of the life of the spirit; the call of
the life of action against the life of
contemplation; the way of stability against the lure of the open road"

Nine Lives
By William Dalrymple
(Bloomsbury, 304 pages, £20

To his credit, despite venturing deep inside
inherently exotic territory, Mr. Dalrymple pulls
off the difficult task of not merely exoticizing
India. In a lesser writer's hands, the same
material might have read like a retread of old
colonial tropes about snake charmers and
ascetics. The reader gets the sense that the
author is driven more by an unquenchable
curiosity about a country he loves than by a
desire to dwell upon the incongruities—say a
sacred elephant stalled at a traffic light, or a
temple where rats are worshipped as God—that strike the first-time visitor.

Mr. Dalrymple never mocks his subjects. Indeed,
his prose is often tinged with tenderness and a
sense of longing. He observes that "There are few
places in the world where landscape and divinity
are more linked than in southern India." Among
pilgrims at a Buddhist temple in Dharamsala he
describes himself and a companion as "the only
stationary figures in a great roundabout of religiosity."

Nonetheless, too much regard for the times we
live in -- which demand Western sensitivity to
Indian sensibilities -- has its drawbacks.
Despite occasional flashes of brilliance -- a
description of a dancer drinking blood from the
neck of a freshly slaughtered chicken is
particularly evocative -- all-in-all Mr.
Dalrymple's India somehow feels less real than
that evoked by V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux or the
hero of Mr. Dalrymple's youth, the peripatetic
Bruce Chatwin. There's something slightly
abstracted about Mr. Dalrymple's vision. It's as
though by glossing over India's chaos, squalor
and harshness he ends up leaching the landscape of its true color.

There's also something slightly dilettantish
about the book's subjects. Indeed "Nine Lives" is
more a snapshot of endangered cultures in a time
of flux than a guide to the most significant
religious currents shaping the subcontinent. When
it comes to Hinduism, Mr. Dalrymple tends to
dwell on the obscure and the marginal. There's no
mention of influential gurus such as Sri Sri Ravi
Shankar, Swami Ramdev or Amma, the so-called
hugging saint, who exercise tremendous sway over
the most energetic, and arguably the most
important, segment of society: the educated middle class.

On Islam, Mr. Dalrymple's omissions are even more
puzzling. He barely touches upon the most
important religious story in the region, the rise
of Islamic fundamentalism. You learn virtually
nothing of the puritanical missionary movement
Tablighi Jamaat, the charismatic Mumbai-based
televangelist Dr. Zakir Naik, or, even though he
visits Pakistan, the religious warriors of the
country's Northwest Frontier Province. When Mr.
Dalrymple does touch upon fundamentalist Islam,
briefly in one chapter, it's with the utmost
delicacy, refracted through the story of a female
dervish in the backwater Pakistani province of
Sindh. Similarly, evangelical Christianity, a
small but muscular movement across much of
eastern and southern India, is ignored entirely.

Despite these flaws, Mr. Dalrymple's work reveals
an India still rich in religious experience, its
spiritual quest -- or rather, quests -- still
very much part of the warp and weft of daily
life. Amid all the excitement about economic growth, an older India endures.

Mr. Dhume is a Washington and New Delhi-based
writer and the author of "My Friend the Fanatic:
Travels with a Radical Islamist" (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).
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