William Dalrymple checks out pagan rites in India(Interview)

May 3rd, 2008 - 10:48 am ICT by admin  

Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, May 3 (IANS) Delhi-based Scottish author William Dalrymple has journeyed across the Indian subcontinent since settling down here in 1984, delving into its past, capturing its soul in his books. But this time, he is charting a rather freewheeling, mystical course. An avowed Indophile, Dalrymple’s new book in the making takes a look at the unorthodox religions in India. The 43-year-old writer is just back from a research tour of the country, collecting stories.

And his bag is laden with 15 individual stories about those who embraced free religions that traditionally flourished in India before faith became straightjacketed.

“My new book is about the traditional forms of religion in India that were popular before the present forms of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism struck roots in India - a kind of pre-Wahhabi (orthodox) Islam and the pre-ramifications of north Indianism when animal and human sacrifices were common during the 18th and the 19th century,” author William Dalrymple told IANS in an interview at his sprawling bungalow on the outskirts of the capital in Chhattarpur.

Dalrymple and his artist wife Olivia share the beige bungalow flanked by a large vegetable garden with two yellow-crested white cockatoos, a dog, half-a-dozen hens and a few goats. The couple has four children.

Dalrymple is the author of award winning non-fiction books like “The White Mughals”, and the “The Last Mughal” that chronicles little known aspects of Muslim rule in India, the “Age of Kali”, a journalistic account of the author’s travels in India and the “City of Djinns”, a book about his foster home, Delhi.

Dalrymple’s new book is about “tantra, Sufism, the devdasi cult of south India and the bauls (wondering minstrels) of Bengal.

“It is also about Bengal and Kerala, two states that are similar in so many ways whether it is excess of mustard in their fish curries or the left-handed forms of unorthodox Hinduism,” laughed the writer.

Dalrymple’s research took him to the Kamakhya shrine in Assam and to the Yellamma temple near Belgaum in Karnataka, where he met devdasi Rani Bai, who has dedicated her child and herself to the service of the lord.

“Belgaum also has a large Sufi shrine and two “big” Wahhabi Islamic seminaries (madrassas),” Dalrymple says.

The author, who has a Bengali great grandmother from Chandernagore in Bengal, visited the Paus Mela (fair) at Santiniketan for his research where 20,000 “raving bauls” (wondering minstrels) sang their devotional music and preached religious tolerance.

“Tarapeeth (a Hindu cremation ground which is the hub of tantra or the dark arts) was the scariest,” he recalls, talking about his journeys for the new book.

“There are several taboos associated with tantra. But tantra is all about breaking conventions. It celebrates anything that is polluting - sex, sexual fluids, cremations, meat and wine,” he explains.

The most striking vignettes that Dalrymple gathered in the course of his travel was that of a Buddhist monk in Bhutan, who wanted to move to a cave from his hermitage “because it was too busy for him”.

“And I met this former Bollywood fight actor in Tarapeeth who came with his goons and a goat (as sacrificial offering) to win a district election. I wanted to know why he needed Tara (the mother goddess) on his side to win an election,” the author narrated, his grey-green eyes twinkling.

Dalrymple, as he likes to claim, represents the “hot blood” in contemporary English writing. The restless kind, whose works are full of energy and information in the non-fiction genre. He rues the fact that there is so little happening in non-fiction. “Barring Suketu Mehta, who has been acclaimed globally, and Ramchandra Guha, there’s hardly anyone else,” he says.

One of the driving forces behind the Jaipur Literary Festival held in January that brought the best of writers from the subcontinent, Dalrymple is categorical about the kind of authors the subcontinent is looking at.

“The search is on for hot, young blood - gunslingers from the basher brigade in Indian writing,” he says.

The eclectic drawing room reflects Dalrymple. It is a blend of the modern, arcane and the ancient. A Mughal-style antique headgear and two old daggers in leather sheaths fight for space with books, compact discs and old furniture - strewn carelessly around. The author, attired casually in a white summer shirt and khaki planter’s pants completes the summer look.

“There is something strange happening in India. For the last three-four years, there has been no wonderful English novel in India. The stronger books are all coming out of Pakistan. Watch out for Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night” on Kashmir. It is one of the best accounts of the Kashmir turmoil I have come across,” says Dalrymple.

Born in Scotland in 1965 in a nice town by the sea, Dalrymple was the youngest of four boys. “It was a happy family. And there was no Indian influence,” recounts the author. But it changed on Jan 26, 1984, when he decided to make India his home. There was an instant connect with India.

“Since then, life has split into two,” he smiled.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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