FOR a thousand if not more years India has attracted visitors who have written extensively on the country and its people. From China in the East to the United States in the West, scholars, travellers, tradesmen and inquisitive journalists have written on what they have seen and felt and their number is legion and they include detractors like Katherine Mayo and admirers like Somerset Maugham.
If only one has the time and the desire to go deeper into the subject of foreign perception of India, one has only to delve into the archives of what British civilians from the time of Robert Clive to the last Governor General of India had dispatched to London. India is vast; India is visible; India is variegated. India is vibrant and India is serendipitous. Multilingual, multi-religious, multifarious, indeed million-faceted, India is what one wants to see. India, in a manner of speaking, is a miracle. It survives because of that very fact; and that is its special characterestic. Has it changed over the years? There are as many answers as there are people. One can say, rightly, yes, it has. Equally rightly one can say, no, it hasn’t. And then there are many who will in all fairness say that indeed there is change, but only it is gradual, sometimes noticeable and often not.
William Dalrymple, a Scotsman who has sought to understand India set out to find an answer. What he had in mind were the following. “How is each specific religious path surviving the change India is currently undergoing? What changes and what remains the same? Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism or is now just another fast-developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?” To get his answeres Dalrymple travelled throughout India, invariably with friends because those he wanted to interview did not necessarily speak English and he needed interpreters. Actually it turned out, he needed eight interpreters speaking eight different languages. And who were the people he interviewed? One was a Buddhist monk who decided to give up his spiritual role to take up arms against the Chinese oppressors in Tibet. The change bothered him. What was more important: sticking to Buddhist non-violence or fighting for his country’s freedom?
Dalrymple makes a study of the intellectual agony that the monk underwent and how later on in life, the monk atoned for his error. Then there is the Jain nun who speaks about sallekhana-the ultimate aim of all Jain Munis. It is the last renouncement. First one gives up one’s home; then, one’s possessions; and finally one’s life. No, said the nun Prasannamati Mataji, it is not suicide. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. Sallekhana is a triumph over death, an expression of hope. Sallekhana is a beautiful thing…. Dalrymple does not sit on judgement. He mercly recounts his encounters with people from different walks of life, as for example, the remarkable Jain nun.
Then there is the bizarre story of a young Bengali lady who hails from a middle class family in Kolkata who decided to join a tantric group and goes to live in a plam-thatched hut in a cremation ground with smoking funeral pyres all around and drinks out of a skull. The Communist Party in West Bengal does not approve of Tantrism. There were instances of the Communist Party occasionally sending out members of what were called “Anti-Superstitition Committees” to the countryside to persuade Tantrics to reject their faith, embrace modernity and less ‘superstitious’ forms of Hinduism. That occasionally involved attacking-rhetorically or otherwise-the Tantries wherever they were found, but not with much to show by way of success.
Dalryample discusses the background of Tantrism and its pre-Vedic origin with admirable detachment. A most touching chapter is on a boy who turned blind after a small-pox attack and was understandably distraught. A Baul gurn discovered him as one with “high, sad and elegiac” voice and in no time the boy, Kanai, joins the Bauls and happily becomes one of them. Dalrymple tells his story-the song of the blind minstrel. Everyone of the stories related here is based on real life and provides a picture of esoteric India that one seldom hears about. In India one takes practically everything for granted. Throughout their five hundred years of history, the Bauls of Bengal have refused to conform to the conventions of caste-conscious Bengali society, but that was hardly the subject of discussion in any social group whether in Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu-a reflection of India’s wonderful spirit of live-and-let-live.
It was nobody else’s business how one particular group anywhere in India wished to live. Two questions arise in this context. What is “sacred” and what is “modern”? Can one make a sharp differentiation between the two? Can one be “modern” and at the same time respectful of what is considered “sacred”? Dalrymple does not pretend to write a Ph.D thesis and provide a quantitative analysis. He merely notes what existes in Indian-Hindu-society unquestioningly and leave it at that.
Fancy a man with two sons living as successful opthadmalogists in New Jersey, with a degree of MBA himself, having once served as a Sales Manager with Kelvinator, giving up everything to become a ‘sadhu’? One suspects that it can happen only in India. But then one may well ask: is becoming a sadhu out of tune with what is considered ‘modernism’?
Dalrymple makes two interesting points. Firstly, he says that he has seen India “change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when he first moved to the country in the late eighties. Secondly, he adds “the speed of the development is breathtaking to anyone used to the plodding growth rates of western Europe”. The most contemperery – modern – life style exists in India side-by-side with a medieval era of camel-drawn carts and sadhus carrying on a life of deep contemplation. Dalrymple says he once “visited a shrine and pilgrimage centre that has formed around an Enfield Bullet motorbike”. That does not baffle any Indian. Indians live in different eras, all of which are equally relevant. They don’t surprise or shock Indians. And that is what makes India what it is.
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