At the core of faith

At the core of faith

exploring the spirit of religion Author William Dalrymple.

William Dalrymple is already a  legend. Days before this interview, friends volunteered enthusiastic accounts of their own encounters with him. “He is bound to be late. Take a book,” said most. On the given day, as I walked into the lobby of the 5 star hotel he likes to give his interviews from, I found he was early and waiting, trouble shooting for the oncoming Jaipur Literary Festival on his Blackberry. Before we could start, he chose his spot under the autumn sun, sprawled on a large sofa and ordered a tall glass of cold beverage.

William knows his books, his market and his position. He is careful with these things. But never too careful. And it is this, the balance of his rehearsed charm and unflinching insight, that his legend feeds of. It is not easy to interview him but it is easy to converse with him. A quality that explains perhaps the fact that the greater percentage of his latest book, Nine Lives — In Search Of The Sacred in Modern India, is quoted speech from his subjects of choice. The book, an extraordinary journalistic and literary exercise defies easy classification. But once you’re over missing the author’s presence in the narrative, it opens itself up as a deceptively simple, decidedly large-hearted account of the ‘spiritual soul’ of modern India.

Excerpts from an interview:

The lives you write about exist mostly on the edge of modernity, often suspicious of it. While those on the other side of the divide could regard them with cynicism. Is it possible for materialism and spirituality to co-exist in harmony?

The degree to which India has always had a tradition of renunciation is closely linked to the degree to which India has had a tradition of ruthless politics, materialism and sensuality. Renunciation is a reaction to it, as is reflected in the lives of great renouncers like the Buddha or Mahavira. Similarly, the people in my book have all pinged off something in the real world, a tragedy or something. You only have to travel a couple of miles off Gurgaon to meet people like those in my book.

Urban India is deeply religious too...

Of course. There hasn’t been any ‘death of God’ phenomenon here unlike in Europe. In India, as in America and China, development has always gone hand in hand with religion. Although the way in which it is practiced might have evolved.

Besides the obvious emotional and intellectual connect, did any of the stories move you spiritually?

I have emphasised that this was not any sort of personal spiritual quest, purely a journalistic exercise. But religion touches the core of humanity and in that has always interested me. I am fascinated by how religion transforms people. I am the sort of swimmer who can sit around the pool and peer but never quite dive into it.  
Most of the people you write about are marginalised. Was that a conscious choice?
There are very few people in india who are not marginalised! One review took exception to my calling a small shopkeeper middle-class, but he is middle-class if you look at a lot of India, where it is still a privilege to own land. But no, this wasn’t a conscious decision. The stories came out of my wish to explore subjects I’ve been personally interested in for a while, like say, Baul music.

In many interviews you’ve said that you kept yourself out of the stories because you wanted to avoid the pitfall of being judged as a “typical westerner writing about Indian religion.” But doesn’t that risk sustain in how you arrange your narrative, despite being outside of it?

No it wasn’t a defensive decision. Writers need to set themselves new challenges. If I kept rewriting City Of Djinns, I’d get bored too. Besides, these lives were so complete in themselves. There was a sense of muddying waters if you sat in judgement. For instance, what useful comment can you make coming from a different faith and moral universe about a Jain nun starving herself to death?  
You said in an interview once that a bad review is like a slap on the face...
Yes. For most authors. Hemmingway didn’t read his reviews I believe. How can you spend three or four years working on something and then not want to know how people are reacting to it?

Where do you think criticism stands in india today? Can it be taken seriously?
Naipaul in his latest book makes some comment to the effect that there is no literary or intellectual life in india. If you start from that position there is certainly a lot going on! That said, given the amount of important writing coming out of india, the standard of reviews is extremely variable. But then there is also a Pankaj Mishra, who is one of the greatest living reviewers.

Hari Kunzru called criticism in india a bloodsport!

What is intriguing is the way urban India, especially journalists and reviewers react to certain subjects. For instance, Adiga’s novel which is at the very least an okay novel gets shredded to bits. I wonder if it’s because it got the Booker and people are jealous, or that they don’t like the dark side to be written about, or believe it doesn’t exist. It is a very interesting question and I am thinking of writing an essay on this.

In a lot of literary spats, reference is made to your foreign origin. After 25 years of living here, do you still feel like an outsider?

Well, it is rather curious that there is always some reference to my foreignness or the other. I am one of those rare foreigners living in India and writing about it, whereas there are plenty of desis living abroad, doing very well in the literary circles there who no one seems to have a problem with. So yes, it does bother me a little, this attitude that if you have white skin you are incapable of knowing what’s going on in this country. But then, this is a problem with immigrant writers all over the world. I mean Vikram Seth can buy George Herbert’s house and own an umbrella but he won’t really ever be British. And I could live five lives here but I would always be an outsider. The downside is you will always miss out on some cultural references, but then you also have an outsider’s bird’s eye view. But overall, India has been very accepting and generous.          

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