Magazine article The Spectator

Agony and Ecstasy

Magazine article The Spectator

Agony and Ecstasy

Article excerpt

NINE LIVES : IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED IN MODERN INDIA

by William Dalrymple Bloomsbury,

£20, pp. 284,

ISBN 9781408800614 .

£16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Twenty years ago, when Wil-liam Dalrymple published his first book, In Xanadu, travel writers tended to follow the example of Paul Theroux, whose huge success then dominated the genre, and to cast themselves as the heroes of their narratives. 'With Nine Lives, ' explains Dalrymple in the introduction to his seventh book, 'I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore.' The result is so exemplarily self-effacing - most of the words here are those of others - that it will disappoint some of his fans, who will miss the direct expression of his engaging personality. But his characteristic wit and sympathy are fully evident in the interviews he has conducted (in eight different languages), as are his love and knowledge of the sub-continent.

The question his book asks is, 'Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alterna-tive to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?' To which the answer is most definite-ly yes to the former. Indeed, the wider capi-talist world seems scarcely to impinge on the lives of Dalrymple's subjects - except in the case of Srikanda Stpathy, a Brahmin idol-maker of Tamil Nadu, who is 23rd in an hereditary line going back seven centuries, to the bronze-casters of the Chola empire.

'The blood itself teaches us our craft, ' he says, 'just as a fish's blood teaches it to swim, or a peacock's blood teaches it to spread its tail.' Stpathy naturally assumed that his son, who at the age of six made a drawing of Shiva so powerful it made the family shake, would succeed him in his sacred trade, but the boy wants to go to Bangalore to work in computers: 'After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze-caster.'

qThey are subject to other historical forc-es, though. Tashi Passang is a Tibetan monk, living in exile with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala, who found himself com-pelled to break his Buddhist vows and take up arms against the Chinese invasion of his country - a catastrophe he is inclined to attribute, along with everything else, to the divine principle of karma: 'Perhaps because there was a time in the seventh century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese, so we are suffering this tor-ture now. …

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