In Search of the Exotic and the Bizarre

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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