There is a Tamil proverb, “Only if the water falls from the conch, then it will become holy water”[சங்கிலிருந்து விழுந்தால்தான் தீர்த்தம்]. This is came to my mind when I completed reading William Dalrymple’s book, Nine Lives; In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, (London, Blooms Bury, 2009, paperback, 2010).
For me there is nothing special in this book. His selection of characters and the way he writes their stories leaves his impression as a famous writer, but the subject matter is not so unique or special, at least for us Indians, as we are familiar with these people and information, although he does provides some extra information without giving any textual reference for it. (He does provide a bibliography for each chapters at the end of the book.)
Similarly, the way he narrates the sexual life of some characters in a subtle manner (Daughters of Yellama and The Song of the Blind Minstrel) forces one to guess if he is exposing (mocking) or explaining their life. Perhaps this is his speciality. In many chapters, wherever he gets an opportunity, whether in context or out of it, he says something about the sensuality in Hinduism.
I enjoyed reading his two famous books: White Mughals and The Last Mughal. As a researcher and good writer, he leaves his scholarship and impression in his writings. But this book, positioned as ‘travel writing’, could have come from anyone. It is only a best seller because he has established his name through other books.
Furthermore, if several scholars write ‘Further praise for Nine Lives’,1 it gets a scholarly endorsement. For example the famous scholar Wendy Doniger, writing in Times Literary Supplement (back cover of this book) says:
Dalrymple vividly evokes the lives of these men and women, with the sharp eye and good writing that we have come to expect of his extraordinary travel books about India….A glorious mix of journalism, anthropology, history and history of religions, packaged in writing worthy of a good novel. Not since Kipling has anyone evoked village India so movingly.
As an Indian, I have read and watched so many T.V. programs about India in both Tamil and English (e.g. one on theyyam dance in Kerala). But when we read, we never keep any ‘anthropological’ or ‘historical’ approach to religion. These stories are about the lives of common Indians who have special skills or a different kind of life from the majority. Anyone could easily find sociology, ethnography, anthropology, etc. in any biography from anywhere in the world. But you need only a scholar to write and endorsed by her/his peers to make it both scholarly and famous.
This reminds me of an interesting incident in the life of Kannandasan, the famous Tamil poet, when he was invited to speak among the students. Before his final address several students read their poems. Finally Kannadasan read one poem and all the audience clapped their hands for it. Then Kannadasan said, ‘this is actually not my poem, but wrote by the student who read the last poem before me. The poem which he read was actually written by me. But none of you appreciated or there was no clap for him. And when I read his poem you all appreciated and clapped your hands. This shows how ‘name’ is more important than the content.
The same is true in publishing. Once you establish yourself as a good author, your name is enough to sell all your other writings.
- The following are the ‘Further praise for this book’:
Tom Adair, Scotsman Books of the Year; Pico Iyer, Time; Khuswant Singh, Telegraph (India); Financial Times; Deepak Chopra; Sadanand Dhume, Wall Street Journal; Ruaridh Nicoll, Observer; Pankaj Mishra, The National; Peter Kirkwood, The Australian; Spectator; Tabish Khair, Biblio; Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times, Books of the Year; Outlook; Business Standard; Kendall Hill, Sydney Morning Herald; Pradeep Sebastian, The Hindu; The Times Books of the Year; Indian Express; Salil Tripathi, Independent; Canberra Times; Time Out; Mint; Guardian; Rory Maclean, Guardian; Elizabeth Gilbert; Observer; Sunday Telegraph and Wendy Doniger, Times Literary Supplement. (from both back and front cover and also in side page in front).