In pursuit of the past

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.

Updated - November 11, 2009 03:47 pm IST

Published - November 11, 2009 03:41 pm IST

Indian Connection: William Dalrymple

Indian Connection: William Dalrymple

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 death.”

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.”

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