Arts ' Books November 11, 2009

In pursuit of the past


Indian Connection: William Dalrymple

Parvathi Nayar learns about William Dalrymple's Indian roots and what
inspired him to write `Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern
India' on his recent visit to Chennai.
Ancestor-worship may not be one of the religious themes examined in
historical/travel writer William Dalrymple's new book `Nine Lives'
(which he was in Chennai to promote), but the intermingling of faiths,
beliefs and histories certainly is. Rather appropriate, then, to troop
along with the author on his visit to the Anglo-Mughal monument in
Chennai that commemorates his ancestor Sam Dalrymple - a concrete
testament to intermingling, and not the least, of Dalrymple's Scottish
history with that of India.
The author heads off soon after landing in town, for the monument is
close to the airport. On the short drive past lazy cows lounging on
rain-soaked grass and busily clamorous traffic, talk turns to `Nine
Lives', religion and families.
`Though I am interested in syncretism in all forms, I had a sharply
monocultural upbringing in Scotland, where the most `multicultural`
event was a Celtic vs Rangers football match. I come from a deeply
religious family, my parents were unquestioningly Catholic, and I, a
pious little boy who grew up learning Latin, medieval history and
theology from Benedictine monks.'
`Today, I am not personally that religious at all. I am increasingly a
rational sceptic about miracles and the supernatural, but intrigued
that people believe in them. I'm interested in finding the familiar in
the unfamiliar.' As in the weatherworn oddity he calls the `Georgian
version of a Mughal tomb': the monument to Sam Dalrymple, who served
in the Madras artillery and died at the age of 49 in 1821. He explains
that it was while researching his bestseller `White Mughals' (2002)
that he stumbled upon these familial connections with India.
`Sam is a family name, every generation has one,' he says, cheerfully
climbing up the pedestal for a photograph. He recalls another humid
Chennai morning in 2004, awash with dragonflies and warm light, when
he brought his own son Sam to see the tomb.
Religious plurality being the absorbing name of the game in `Nine
Lives', we drift on to St. Thomas Mount. `It's amazing isn't it, how
the story of St. Thomas has got mixed up with Lord Murugan's stories
of spears and peacocks,' he says, pointing to the vel or spear being
held by St. Thomas. `Legend also has it that the missionary changed
into a peacock to hide from his enemies, but was finally speared to
The view from the top of the hillock shows overlapping slices of
history, colonial and agrarian pasts being inexorably replaced by
concrete blocks and tenements. `I want to do a book on South India,'
he shares; perhaps on the Christians devoted to St. Thomas or perhaps
on Robert Clive, who first came to Madras with the East India Company
in 1744, at the age of 18.
About the same age, incidentally, that Dalrymple first came to India
as a backpacker. He returned several times to live and write books
such as `City of Djinns' (1993); currently, he and his family are
based in a farm outside Delhi.
Fascinated with India
Of that first encounter with India in 1984: `I was dumbfounded. I was
hooked by India and Indian history. Perhaps someone more sophisticated
or better travelled might have had less of a lightning-struck
experience.' On the Mount, the weather obligingly adds atmosphere to
the statement with `an apocalyptical' advancement of rain from the
horizon, a relentlessly moving bank that turns the world grey behind
it. It reaches us soon enough and we take shelter in the shrine.
Within, Dalrymple proves a knowledgeable guide, pointing out examples
that speak of the Mount's multicultural history under the Portuguese,
the Armenians, the Christians, the Hindus and the Muslims: translating
a gravestone marker written in Latin and Armenian of a lady who died
in 1759, or pointing to a pulpit adorned with mermaids that bear a
passing resemblance to Yakshi figures.
Given his knowledge and interest, religion is a legitimate subject of
enquiry. But, as he says over the sound of the rain beating down, `I
was very nervous when I started `Nine Lives' - that it should not be
seen as a firang's version of India. After all, religion along with
maharajas and slums, are the three things a foreign writer is
`supposed' to write about.'
Surprising response
He was sure `Nine Lives' would be a hard sell in India, but to his
surprise, it became the number one non-fiction bestseller, selling
35,000 copies in two weeks in India, and for the first time outselling
his British edition.
As we finally pick our way back down between the puddles, Dalrymple
offers one possible answer to why write about religion at all:
`Religion is a very telling way into the human soul, and the human
condition. Like sex or love, religion is at least equally revealing
and defining.'
`In India, moreover, religions come with a fantastic civilisational
baggage of philosophy, art, literature and poetry. The pieces in `Nine
Lives' emerged from my interest in these - the story of the idol
carver from a fascination with Chola bronzes after an exhibition at
the Royal Academy, or the Bauls after listening to CDs of Paban Das
Baul's music.'