20 January 2011

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Good book, super festival, sorry controversy
I first read Nine Lives in November 2009, during a journey that lasted nearly all day. The long flight and transit melted away with the compelling style and fascinating story of the nine people chosen to feature in this book. Each one is related in some way to religion and through this book you can see, more clearly than in daily life, how much India has changed and how much it remains the same and will perhaps never change.
I enjoyed it all over again when I read it aloud to my friend Gladys a few months later.
It’s always interesting to me that, though we are so similar in many ways, our perspectives differ so much – doubtless on account of our differing cultural backgrounds. For instance, I was rather awestruck by the young Jain girl who ran away to become a nun, and went through a process of plucking out each hair on her head and later stoically watched her companion (and dearest friend) perform a ritual starvation to death. Gladys, however, has no patience with this sort of thing; she thought the girl was rather foolish and it was a waste of a life.

I had wanted to write about this book in my Sunday Mid-day column but the editor felt it would be better if the review was done by the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik who was better qualified than I to assess this subject and in the end it never got done.
I remembered that when, in June 2010, I noticed with surprise and disappointment that Nine Lives was not on the list of nominations for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award. It had apparently not been eligible because William Dalrymple is not an Indian national - odd, since The Last Mughal once won a Crossword prize for non-fiction. And in any case, he has lived in India for twenty years or more and written more detailed, interesting and scholarly as well as lay books about various aspects of India than any of us. AND this really was one of the best books I’d read in that year.

I knew I must write about it here, and finally decided to do so now because this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, one of William Dalrymple’s biggest contributions to the Indian literary scene, begins tomorrow.
As it happens, everyone is talking about William Dalrymple these days. Just yesterday I received a press release about a signature campaign launched by him, along with Gurcharan Das and two associations of Indian publishers, to petition the Union HRD Ministry against the proposed Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2010 to Indian Copyright Act, 1957.
And he has been making news ever since 2011 began.
First, Hartosh Singh Bal (the man who “broke” the Niira Radia story) wrote an article (also in Open magazine), The Literary Raj, about how insular the Indian literary scene is, and some of our cultural tendencies, all well described.
Furiously accusing someone of being racist in a case like this is kind of like a vengeful sexual harassment charge. Sadly, that’s just what William Dalrymple did: The piece you ran is blatantly racist. To which Hartosh Singh Bal’s wrote a good rejoinder, Does Dalrymple know what racism really is?
Now all this is unbearably longwinded and all, but what struck me is the fact that, even though Dalrymple has done so much undeniably good quality work, so many of us seem to resent him so much.
Why could that be? What is it about his manner that we find annoying? Perhaps it’s a fundamental pomposity - many of the Delhi journalists I know consider him faintly ridiculous. You can catch a glimpse in this photo of him preparing for a session at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, with a residue of his reflex long suffering “Ahem, can you please go away? Bloody tourists!” look.

Some of this is also reflected in his writing style in this book. It is over-dramatised in parts, and uses the type of slightly exaggerated storytelling style generally reserved to recount tales of great valour or legends of yore. I was amused that his publishers called it “an almost biblical simplicity”.
At the same time, I did appreciate the fact that this style, once you’re already in and enjoying yourself, draws you in even more.

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