India is a place where the line between fact and fiction is blurry at best, where religion and superstition is intricately woven into the fabric of the lives of even the most logical. It’s the home of the longest literary composition on earth, the Mahabbarata, which has 100 000 stanzas; and there are still people today who can recite them from memory, in performances that last for a week. Several Indians follow the trade of their family back for a thousand years or more. Hinduism predates Western religions by millenia. In many respects, India is the cradle of all civilization.
The magic of this sub-continent is captured superbly by the travel writer and historian William Dalrymple, a Scot who, like many of his ancestors sent to the colonies before him, elected to make India his home. I’ve just read City of Djinns (1993), which traces the history of Delhi, where Dalrymple lived for a year, and before that I was mortified to finish Nine Lives (2009), which provides remarkably poignant vignettes of the spiritual paths of nine very different Indians.
His style is light and breezy, often hilarious, yet between the characters and places, meals and ordeals, he packs in a huge amount of facts and observations. I got the impression that despite having to frequently employ translators to converse with his subjects, he was able to win their trust, have authentic interactions and elicit from them deeply personal recollections.
These days Dalrymple – who’s won literary prizes for every one of his 10 books – writes less travel and more historical material, and a good deal of journalistic short stories and articles, but mostly still on India and the countries bordering it. I won’t try to capture all of what he’s written on, as that’s way beyond my scope: I’m just going to share a few excerpts from the two books of his I’ve read thus far.
The Nun’s Tale is the first story in Nine Lives. Dalrymple interviews Mataji, a Jain nun who had just lost her best friend Prayogomati, who had walked beside her since childhood, since they took their vows together, a ritual that involves tearing out your own hair. Jain nuns own nothing, renounce all material things; they wander the land with just a bowl and a robe. They are not even permitted to beg.
Prayogomati had just died; she had been diagnosed with TB, then decided to embrace Sallekhana. This is the final renunciation for a Jain: the gradual, voluntary, intentional and ritualised giving up of all food and sustenance, until the monk or nun finally dies of starvation. Jains do not regard it as suicide so much as the ultimate form of detachment.
The following day, after she had finished her breakfast, I went to say goodbye to Prasannamati Matajali.
‘Her time was fixed,’ she said quickly reverting to the subject of Payogamati, like a pigeon returning to its coop. ‘She passed on. She’s no longer here. I have to accept that reality. All things decay and disappear in time.’
Matajali fell silent, apparently lost in thought. There was a long pause. ‘Now my friend has gone,’ she said eventually, ‘it is easier for me to go too.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I have seen over forty sallekhanas,’ she said. ‘But after Payogamati’s, I realise it was time I should set out to that end as well.’
‘You mean you are thinking of following …?’
‘I am on the path already,’ said Matajali. ‘I have started cutting down on the food I eat. I have given up milk or curds, salt and sugar, guava and papaya, leafy vegetables and ladies’ fingers. Each month I give up something new. All I want to do now is to visit a few more holy places before I go.’
‘But why?’ I asked. ‘You are not ill like she was. Isn’t it an absurd waste of a life? You’re only thirty-eight.’
‘I told you before,’ she said. ‘Sallekhana is the aim of all Jain munis (nuns). It is the last renouncement. First you give up your home, then your possessions. Finally you give up your body.’
‘You make it sound very simple.’
‘When you begin to understand the nature of reality, it is very simple. It is a good way – the very best way – to breathe your last, and leave the body. It is no more than leaving one house to enter another.’
The Monk’s Tale (also in Nine Lives) relates how a Tibetan monk was forced from his homeland and took up arms as a desperate last resort. For this, his mother was captured, tortured and killed by the Chinese. The monk understandably has a deep anger and hatred for the Chinese, but, acting on the advice of the Dalai Lama, he decides to ‘wash his anger clean’ and eat at a Chinese restaurant.
So one day when I was on a pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, I saw a small Chinese restaurant by the roadside. It was run by two Chinese women – an old woman of seventy, and her daughter who must have been forty. I went in there one evening and ordered noodles. I have to say that they were delicious. After I had eaten, I thanked the mother and asked her to sit down with me so we could talk. I asked: ‘Where are you from?’ and she replied, ‘Before the Communists, I was from China.’ It turned out her father had been tortured and killed by Mao’s soldiers at the Cultural Revolution, and her relations had fled to Hong Kong and from there to Calcutta. By this stage, she was weeping, crying and crying as she told me what her family had suffered. I told her, ‘Before the Communists, I was from Tibet, and my mother was also tortured, and died from what Mao’s soldiers did to her.’ After that, we both burst into tears and hugged each other. Since then I have been free from my hatred of all things and people Chinese.
In City of Djinns, Dalrymple interviews a motley assortment of Brits who refused to leave Delhi with the demise of the Raj. I was particularly touched by the story of an old lady called Norah Nicholson, who lost her government lodgings due to some bureaucratic tangle and lived in a tatty shack with four dogs, twelve cats and an assortment of birds. While he spoke to this feisty character, peacocks came crashing through the shack roof; a cobra lived under her bed. Dalrymple leaves Delhi for five years, and on his return comes looking for Norah.
‘Are you looking for Norah?’ asked a voice from behind me.
I turned round. It was Norah’s Anglo-Saxon neighbour.
‘Yes,’ I said. Where is she?’
‘She’s dead, I’m afraid,’ he replied. ‘She’s been dead and buried a while now. The monsoon before last.’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘It was her cobra,’ he replied matter-of-factly. ‘He finally got her. She’d given up trying to gas him out and had begun feeding him bowls of milk.’
‘We all tried to reason with her, but she wouldn’t listen. She kept repeating that cobras were God’s creatures too.’ The man shrugged his shoulders. ‘We found her the next day. My wife went straight over because we knew something was up.’
‘How?’ I asked.
‘It was her dogs,’ said the man. ‘They were howling like the end of the world had come.’