Illuminating biographies of Indians who retain ancient devotional traditions despite rapid economic change.
In a conscious reversal of the first-person method he employed in his book on Middle Eastern monks, From the Holy Mountain (1998), British journalist Dalrymple (The Last Mughal, 2006, etc.) allows these selected voices to speak for themselves—a tricky task, he writes, since the “interviews for this book took place in eight different languages.” His subjects hail from diverse backgrounds. A Jainist nun lives an ascetic life in the southern pilgrimage site of Stravanabelagola. She left her family, gave away her possessions, walks everywhere so that she won’t harm a living creature and now looks forward to the ultimate path toward Nirvana in sallekhana, or starving herself to death. “There is no distress or cruelty,” she says calmly. “As nuns our lives are peaceful, and giving up the body should also be peaceful.” A Tibetan Buddhist monk who lived through the persecution of the monasteries by the Chinese in the 1950s recounts his newfound attempt to achieve atonement for the violence he committed then in the name of preserving his faith. A prostitute in Saundatti, one of the legions of women consecrated in their youth by impoverished families to the service of the goddess Yellamma, describes her ghastly lot of entrenched illiteracy and almost-certain contraction of AIDS. An aged singer of 600-year-old epics performs his craft in Pabusar over five nights of dusk-to-dawn performances that function both as entertainment and devotional rite. A famous Sufi fakir at the Sehwan shrine in southern Pakistan dances a perilous line between Islam and Hinduism. Throughout the book, Dalrymple showcases his knowledge of the breadth of India and his fearless willingness to penetrate its sometimes unsavory nooks and crannies, rendering this a truly heartfelt work for readers craving a deeper connection to India and its rich spiritual heritage.
A remarkable feat of journalism.