Archive for September, 2010

The House of Blue Mangoes

Posted in Books, India with tags , on September 13, 2010 by salaamreaders

It is an interesting story, set in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century southern India, when the country was in the throes of a social and political upheaval. Power equations within the family were changing. The traditional village structures were crumbling with the deprived asserting themselves against the dominant castes. The British were being challenged by an increasingly assertive revolutionary-nationalist movement. It was, truly, a time of  momentous change.

It is against this backdrop that David Davidar weaves his story of three generations of Dorais- the traditional headmen of a village on the Coromandel Coast. Solomon, the grandfather- the archetypal headman- is confronted by an equally powerful rival. Inevitably, the clash of the titans leaves the village in ruins. It is left to his rather ‘effete’ son-Daniel- to don his mantle and repopulate the village while Aaron-the younger son, cast more in his mould, is caught up in the nationalist movement and dies as a result of torture in a British prison. Kannan- the grandson- estranges his father by marrying an Anglo-Indian girl and settles on a tea estate as a planter- a brown sahib. He, too, however cannot resist the call of his native soil and eventually returns to the village where his father had constructed a grand mansion- Neelam Illum or the house of blue mangoes.

The plot is simple. The characters, both Indian and British, appear real. Their relationships- of love, hate, rivalries, and politics- seem so familiar. The everyday incidents in their lives-births, marriages, feasts, deaths- happen in our lives too. The pace of the narrative is not frantic. Yet, the book is entertaining. Its effect lies in the extraordinary skill with which different strands of these lives have been woven into a coherent whole. The prose is charming and evocative. It vividly captures the beauty of the landscape and nuances of Indian life.

There is only one complaint that I have. The book could have been much shorter without compromising on its  value. Some of the incidents, for instance, the search for the best mangoes and the story about the man-eating tiger are wholly unnecessary. But, nevertheless, it is an engrossing story and recommended highly.

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In Search of the Exotic and the Bizarre

Posted in Books, India, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by salaamreaders

India has always drawn the foreigner to her shores. From Fa – Hien to William Dalrymple, many have made the journey, albeit for different reasons. But it has always been long and arduous-both literally and metaphorically. For India is neither easily nor quickly understood. Her reality is amazing but tenuous and her beliefs completely alien to the uninitiated. It is therefore not surprising that the sheer diversity of the Indian experience often makes the foreigner to focus attention on aspects which are in complete contrast to their own cultural sensibilities. All travelogues-whether of ancient, medieval or modern travellers- thus present India as a land very unlike their own-picturesque, exotic and often bizarre.

William Dalrymple is an acclaimed writer. His book, Nine Lives- In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,   is also a search for the exotic in modern India. The idea of the book occurred to him during a trek to Kedarnath where he met a naga sadhu who was formerly a ‘cosmopolitan’ corporate ‘high flyer’. The sheer incongruity of such a character in modern India set him in search of the place of spirituality in contemporary Indian society. His quest took him across India during which he discovered a Jain mataji or nun in Sravanbelgola, a dalit theyyam dancer in Kerala, a devdasi or a woman who is ‘dedicated’ to a goddess in Karnataka, a traditional Rajasthani singer or bhopa, a lady fakir at a sufi shrine in rural Sindh, a Tibetan lama or monk who was formerly a soldier, a south Indian sculptor, a Bengali lady tantric and a baul or Bengali folk singer. He does not tell us whether he just chanced upon them in his wanderings but one is left with a lingering feeling that the cast was carefully assembled to pander to a primarily Western readership.

He sets about ‘bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage’ as ‘the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong.’ He hoped ‘to avoid many of the clichés about Mystic India that blight so much of Western writing on Indian religion’ by just providing a ‘frame’  and ‘with each of the characters telling his or her own story.’ Unfortunately, he only ends up reinforcing the very stereotypes that he had hoped to avoid.

One may very well ask what makes these characters eligible for being included in this book. Are they unconventional? Yes-for they are a minority; and no, they are all a part of a long-standing tradition familiar to Indians. In fact, they are simply incongruous in modern India, a dying breed, exotic and bizarre at the same time. And that is why they are in the book.

The clichés about India abound in descriptions of the practice of sallekhana or death by starvation among the Jains and how Hari Das, the theyyam dancer is possessed and transformed into the god Vishnu. The same are perpetrated by references to women ‘married’ to a god and forced to prostitute themselves. The author reinforces them further by descriptions of a ‘huge, dark-skinned, red-clad woman of between fifty and sixty, dancing with an enormous wooden club’ at a sufi shrine and of a lady tantric sitting ‘amid smoking funerals of the cremation ground’ and exhorting him to ‘first find the right corpse’ before he drank from a skull. He pontificates on erotico-mystical rites including ‘oral ingestion of sexual fluids’, ‘forbidden substances and practices-alcohal, ganja and ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women’ and animal sacrifices in which the body ‘lay writhing on the ground.’

No doubt, the stories of these people would appear compelling to Dalrymple’s Western readers but to Indians neither the cast nor the setting is unfamiliar. This book is meant for the firangi, a good read before embarking on their own quest of the ‘mystical’. We don’t need a five-page glossary to understand aarti and agarbatti!

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