I must admit, I was very skeptical about reading William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali. I didn't have a very good time of his White Mughals and was content not reading him again. Until a much respected friend asked me to give him another chance. Still hesitant and not wanting to invest in it myself, I dragged Words Worth to a bookstore and insisted she buy me the book for a birthday long gone.
Before beginning it, my greatest fears about the book were that he would either sell India or be patronizing, as a disturbing number of diasporic and non-Indian writers tend to be. Honestly, I was also apprehensive because I didn't want to read a critique or even an account of India from a "foreigner" and all that nationalist enthusiasm.
I have seldom had the chance to be so happy about being dead wrong. This book is everything a newspaper report/article ought to be but unfortunately, isn't.
Published in 1998, The Age of Kali is a collection of essays about Dalrymple's journeys in the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean and spans from 1989 to 1998. Reading these in 2005, it may seem that some of these pieces have lost either relevance or are, in a sense, anachronous. Instead however, they provide an insightful, incisive look into the history and in many ways, the origins of the current social, political and economic situations in India.
His choice of title is grounded in the Hindu view of the epochs of time in which society will move through four ages - from a golden age into social and moral chaos. Indeed, his accounts of North India would well make you believe that we are undoubtedly living in the age of Kali, the lowest throw of an ancient game of dice, an age where things fall apart.
Dalrymple's experiences demonstrate the strangehold the caste system still has on not only rural India, but much of "modern" and urban India as well. The essay on Bihar chronicles the decay of governance in North India and the manipulation of a state into poverty and lawlessness. The pieces on Rajasthan are frightening in their observation of the interdependencies between politics, the caste system, poverty, sheer brute force and the terrifying oppression of women.
The situation is no different in Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu widows - many of them child widows - languish in an apathetic and corrupt system and are most often left to beggary and singing in ashrams for "a cupful of rice and two rupees." If a widow be unfortunate enough to be young and attractive, an unholy nexus between the ashram managers and some sadhus ensures that she finds her way to the bed of a local landowner who, in his turn, will sell her to a brothel once he is done with her. And yes, the police are paid well for their non-interference.
At complete odds with this is the prosperity in urban southern and western India. In Bangalore, this boom calls forth the irrational xenophobia of the Karnataka State Farmers' Association which trashed a KFC outlet since the primary agenda of every MNC in India is to debase and violate our culture. In Bombay, it gives rise to a Hindi rap star (Baba Sehgal!) and a city full of people like Shobha De and other Page 3 regulars.
His essays on the temples of South India are travel writing at its most beautiful - evocative, descriptive and grounded in careful research. In the essays on Lucknow, Goa and Hyderabad,which are a requiem for a time and grandeur long gone, Dalrymple captures every sight, sound, taste, and sensation from another's memory and brings it to delightful and immediate animation.
His essays on Pakistan have a different character and I think, as a whole, are weak: Dalrymple does not seem to put as much into them as he does into his travels in India. However, the section on Peshawar is brilliantly etched and his description of the ancient Gandhara civilization is unequaled by any other account of the area that I have ever read.
He is also a wickedly funny man and takes subtle potshots you could miss if you blinked a little too fast. His use of anecdotes and incidents is subtle and always well timed. He tells the tale of India with a lot more compassion, warmth and understanding than I have often read Indians accord her. And I don't think that his reverence is something born of "exotica".
My only grouse is that his interactions are mostly with the urban, educated elite - both page 3 and the literati, as it were. I am not sure if that is the only or perhaps even right way to approach the subcontinent because even as we are now moving full steam ahead into globalization for all, I do not think Shobha De, of all people, can be taken as a snapshot of life in Bombay - of all cities. It also seems contradictory to his experiences in north India, i.e Rajasthan, Bihar, and Vrindavan, which deal with the middle classes and lower sections of Indian society.
At the heart of the matter, William Dalrymple is a gifted writer; someone you would come back to over and over. What I liked the most is that his observations are so gracefully unintrusive - unlike most reporters that shove both fact and their opinions in your face. The book and indeed, his writing is an interface between him, the place and you, his reader. You are free to make of the experience what you will.
To the one I wanted to speak with - I hope I did him justice...?