Thursday, August 26, 2010

First personal

Just finished William Dalrymple's Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. It was on my pile of new books but made its way to the top when he wrote that editorial about endangered Sufism. I was a bit snarky about the editorial, valuable though it is, because my past experience with Dalrymple - a number of friends recommended his City of Djinns when I went to Delhi - was of a well-researched and gifted writer occasionally given to superciliousness. On several occasions in Djinns, I thought he was unkind to the people he described, presenting them as figures of fun, describing conversations which didn't sound believable at all. My first reaction to Nine Lives was similar - the first-person accounts he quotes of the lives of a Jain nun, a Dalit who dances possessed by gods for a few months each year, etc. just didn't sound like what these people (or anyone) would tell. But then it didn't matter. I found I trusted Dalrymple, and was grateful to him for letting these people speak. There's no question that Dalrymple's an expert teller of stories, and that his nine profiles add up to a rich and complicated whole. (By the end you have a sense of the whoe subcontinent.) But he also really does let these people speak for themselves. An example at right, from the profile of a Chola bronze idol maker. Does he feel pride when he sees one of his statues being worshipped? Reea on! Dalrymple's found a way of acknow- ledging and even honoring the messiness of the religious reality of India. It makes for a splendid book for under- standing India - and for under- standing religion, too.

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