Dalrymple’s Nine Lives

There is no denying the fact that Scotsman William Dalrymple is a fantastic writer. He has the inane ability to weave magic carpets and then take you along on a journey through time, be it 100 years or even a 1000. In his work, his hard work and research is reflected in the kind of details he brings forth. ‘The devil is in the details’ and Dalrymple is the indeed the devil that exults in minutiae. Over the past quarter of a century in his adopted homeland, he has worked hard not only to understand what India was, is or could be, but also has come to appreciate what it is not and does not wish to be. Through all his books, one thing is crystal clear; he loves this country truly, with all its intricacies and oddities. In fact, I have a feeling that he loves this land ‘because’ of these oddities, the fact that India does not fall into a model, a land of stark contrasts, a land where time is a just a measure, where faith and belief can literally move mountains. Dalrymple celebrates these contrasts in all his books, and 9 lives happens to be the biggest celebration thus far.

In the three earlier books that I have read, namely, City of Djins, Last Mughal and White Mughals, Dalrymple has kept himself limited to history and historical settings. Sifting through the tomes in the National Archives, he had found little pearls of information and then crafted brilliant necklaces oftales from them. He has been fairly successful in recreating the past, like a painter does. So, in the Last Mughal, we are able to understand the nuances in the court of Bahadur Shah Jafar and how he was caught up in the wave of 1857 mutiny. Or in the city of Djins, he explores Delhi like an archaeologist, uncovering layer after layer of previous cultures that lived and thrived. 9 lives is markedly different from all his previous works. It lies in a mix-match genre, part travelogue, part biographies, part historical, part non-fiction, part fiction, etc. The work does not confirm itself to a single genre, and that is its greatest strength and also the greatest weakness.

Much like the title goes, 9 lives is basically biographical sketches of 9 individuals, who are in no ways connected to each other (except for the last two). The common thread that is shared in all is that they are in pursuit of the divine through their actions or vocation and when they are not, they have full faith in the power of supplication like Rani, as one of the characters did. So, we have a sketch of a Jain Swetambar nun in Karnataka, a prostitute in the same state, a theyyam dancer in Kerala, folk-lore singer from Rajasthan, a Sufi in Pakistan, a Buddhist monk in Himachal, a Brahmin idol maker in Tamil Nadu and a tantric lady and a baul singer from Bengal. The tales of these rather esoteric individuals is what makes up 9 lives. Intermixed with all the tales, is a lot of historical and contextual perspective, so, in case of the Jain nun, one gets to know the beliefs and customs of the religion, or in case of the theyyam dancer, we are privy to the caste conflict that has been around for centuries. In Lal Paree’s story, the conflict between the two forms of Islam, the liberal and the didactic comes to fore or in the idol maker; it is the old 700 year culture trying to survive itself in the face of challenges from the computer and the Internet. Thus, each story is a khichdi of a certain time, place, or culture pegged on a central figure, who takes it forward. Dalrymple truly immerses his own self in each of these tales, so there is very little “me” here, namely, author’s bias or perspective. And yet, these stories are not without there subtle lessons or lamentations, about the way things are going or have gone. Continue reading

How I got my stolen Cellphone back?

It couldn’t have been more than 5 mins since I left the autorickshaw, when I realised my cellphone was missing. After rummaging through my belongings, I couldn’t find my hapless Micromax Q7 — hapless because it was in a pretty bad state thanks to lil’ Idhant. Since, I had left home in a tearing hurry, I couldn’t recall well whether I had carried my cell along (and thereby forgotten it in the rickshaw) or I had just forgotten to carry it at all. On calling upon my number, it just kept buzzing, so I called up wife next to check if the phone was lying around at home. On getting a negative reply, I yet again persisted in ringing up my number and my worst fears were confirmed when after a few rings more, the cell went dead. I didn’t need an Oracle to tell me that the phrase “out of coverage area”, clearly implied that someone had heard the rings and decided to silence the puny instrument for good. And the needle of suspicion pointed to the autorickshaw driver, who was the last person who had seen my cell.

For some odd reasons, I found it hard to believe that the seemingly honest bloke, who I had chatted up while 45 mins journey, would transform into an unscrupulous knave, who wouldn’t flinch from bumming a cellphone. The driver was a North Indian, or what is often called as a ‘Bhaiyya’. He was also an educated man, medium built, dressed up neatly, presenting a picture of sobriety. But, the facts on hand said otherwise. My cell had rung a few times, before it was strangulated into silence. And going by the past experiences, especially of my father, who had lost a couple many in these rickshaws, the evidence pointed to just one thing: the arseole had decided to make merry with my phone.

After muttering a few many oaths under the breath, I resigned myself to the new reality. Have to buy a new cell, need to get a duplicate SIM, etc. Yet, nothing could compensate the loss of data, namely, all the contacts on the cell and yes, the pics and videos of Idhant. It was this loss that hurt the most, and like many other people who have lost their cell, it dawned upon me that it is not the hardware that you rue, but all the soft memories inside.

Fortunately, I had backed quite a few of the pics on phone, so except for the loss of my contacts, I could live another day. Also, the fact was Micromax was a low-cost stop gap for me, till an Android Qwerty hit the market (which Motorola Charm did, just a few days earlier), hence in some weird ways I was not all that sad. Hence, over the next few days, I did indeed get the phone I desired, my old number, and life was back to normal, except for the simple fact, whenever people called up on my cell, they expected a warmer greeting like, ‘Hi Abhijeet’, or ‘Bolo Jatinder’, but since I did not have any numbers, my voice was hesitant and cold.

Also, I came to realise that it was my son who missed the phone much. He loved playing songs on it and dancing to them, since, Micromax didn’t cost the moon, I was pretty lax on him handling it (not the case with the new cell). Hence, the little guy missed his music player much more than I missed my phone. But things changed suddenly as my wife started getting strange smses at 6 in the morning. Continue reading