That India is rapidly changing is a cliche. But in this exhilaratingly fast race to modernize, of getting to a place we are all proud of, are we in danger of letting go of some unique ways of life, distinctive belief systems, a heterogeneity that has been so much a characteristic of us?
Dalrymple attempts to chronicle these in-between spaces, 'in the places between modernity and tradition'. Where in small towns and even smaller villages across the country, very diverse and very old systems of faith and sacred lore are colliding with life-changing technology, newer ways to earn a living, a fresh set of beliefs. It is a travel book that goes deeper than most travel books go. It proves to be a snapshot of a time in our history that may be far more significant than we now think it to be.
Dalrymple writes about the lives of 9 people; each of them part of ancient tradition, passed on from generation to generation; each of them holding on to that tradition in the face of an invasive modern world; each tradition part of the diverse notions of that spirituality we Indians hold dear.
One is a Jain monk, a woman who has walked away from riches to lead a life of a detached ascetic, only to find her biggest test of detachment yet - the slow ritualised death of her dear friend. One is Hari Das from Kerala, a prison warden for most of the year and a Theyyam dancer for 3 months of it; when he lets the gods possess him and he transforms from an insignificant lower caste man to a god worthy of worship in the eyes of his audience. Then there is Rani Bai, a prostitute dedicated by her family to the goddess Yellamma, one in a long ancient line of 'devadasis' or temple dancers. The tradition might be ancient and rich, but today, Rani Bai is nothing more than an insignificant part of a flourishing flesh trade battling that same vicious battle prostitutes around the world battle against - disease and disgrace. Another is a Tibetan monk who fled Tibet along with the Dalai Lama only to end up fighting in the Indian army during the Bangladesh war and then spends the rest of his life atoning for his killing, making prayer flags. And yet another is Srikanda Stpathy, maker of the most exquisite bronze idols in Tamil Nadu, again the inheritor of a traditional profession that goes back seven centuries. Only this time, Srikanda is not sure the tradition will continue. His son and his brother's son want to study computers and move away.
Dalrymple moves to Rajasthan to meet Mohan Bhopa, a singer of epics in the desert. The songs have been sung for centuries, passed on from generation to generation orally, never written down till as recently as the last century. The songs are of stories of local heroes, who rustle cattle from the demon king Ravan and protect their women from Muslim invaders. These epics, along with the Theyyam of Hari Das, the songs of the Bengal Bauls and the legend of goddess Tara in Tarapeeth in Bengal form a rich tapestry of very local renditions that fluid Hinduism can make. In fact, Dalrymple makes a case with these stories against the homogenisation of the Hindu epics, wrought by the serials on national television. It's true. The different local takes of those great epics are in danger of being eroded.
Then there is the Sufi Lal Pari - the Red Fairy. A devotee at the Lal Shahbaz dargah in Sindh, Lal Pari represents the softer more fluid side of Islam that flourishes in South Asia. An Islam that is however under severe threat from the homogenised harsh interpretation of the Quran that the Wahhabis and Deobandis propogate. The Sufis who declare their devotion to God through mesmerizing music and dance again form Dalrymple's case against a homogenisation of religion and the loss of individual and very local interpretations of it.
Dalrymple lets the nine people speak for themselves, with little commentary or opinion. It's touching and immensely educational. It is a lovely little book that makes you realize the richness and sheer variety of spirituality in India. And the danger this diversity is in, in the modernised version of the country.