Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"The Age Of Kali" By William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple's fourth book, published in 1998, is again on Indian subcontinent (mostly India but also touches upon Pakistan & Sri Lanka plus a brief visit to RĂ©union, an French island in the Indian). It is a collection of essays collected through his nearly a decade of travel around the Indian subcontinent. The name, Age Of Kali, is a reference to KaliYuga - which is the time (as per Hindu cosmology) when world's imperfection's become so big that there comes a need to start the whole cycle of life afresh. He is surely an Indophile Scotsman, which become more evident after reading this book - where he (despite all the essays of political corruption, ethnic violence, and social disintegration) does feel for India's diversity and the will to survive all times. Nearly half of the essays in the book are not written in his usual travel chronicle style - they are more like interviews and interactions with people. And nearly, in each chapter, he asks some tough questions which the subcontinent is still facing. I would not say that the book is dark, but it would still make you think "why did not he found any happy stories to tell in India?".

Dalrymple covers a lot of ground including Bihar, Rajasthan, Vrindavan, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin, Madurai, Goa, Sri Lanka, RĂ©union Island, & Pakistan: Islamabad, Peshawar. He starts with Bihar, where he finds corruption, caste conflict, government breakdown, and general lawlessness to alarming extent. He then moves to Lucknow, once a beautiful pre-Raj city, where he finds its heritage decaying due to poverty, neglect, corruption, and being replaced by ugly concrete towers. Next is Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, a "temple town" where many devout Hindus believe Krishna still lives, and also heartbreakingly a place for many thousands of widows, who live lives of terrible poverty and suffering, the result of traditional Hindu society views on widows. Next significant essay is from Rajasthan, a tale of informal social workers among village women struggling to stop infanticide and child marriages and promote education for all children, focusing on a social worker who was raped and faced both caste and gender-based bias. Another good essay is about sati (the act of a widow throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre); and his visit of the village where a famous sati case was reported in 80s. Then there are some essays on Bombay, Bangalore, Madurai, and Cochin. Next significant essay is a wonderful summation of his interactions with Tamil Tiger - he went to their core areas and met a significant leader as well. The most turning part of this essay is his meeting with the 20-somethings Tiger girls who were trained to give life for the cause. The essays on Pakistan consists of his interactions with Imran Khan, ultra-famous sports star turned politician; the ruins of the fascinating Gandhara civilization (a composite civilization influenced by the Alexander the Great), and an interview with and account of Benazir Bhutto and her family.

It is a good book, written with honesty and dedication towards India. Although some of the initial essays are depressing - but then India is not what you see on travel books.

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