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Nine lives, one quest
  Meetu Tewari  
  Nine Lives
By William Dalrymple
Pages: 284
Price: Rs 324

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE is one of the best travel writers of contemporary times. Born in Scotland, he was brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. 'In Xanadu' was his first novel and was written when he was just 22. Dalrymple, who has been presented with several awards, lives on a farm outside Delhi with his wife Olivia Fraser and three children. His latest offering, 'Nine Lives', is as interesting and intriguing as ever. "In search of the sacred in modern India" says the subtitle. The book covers diverse religious beliefs and practices that stand out in stark contrast to the rapidly developing India; the economic power called India.

The author says he has attempted to stay silent and let the people, whose stories are narrated, be the main characters. Dalrymple does not judge, and his objective narrative is peppered with the description of unique practices and the humane voice and emotive appeal of nine persons whose experiences and lives are disclosed within the pages of this book.

The first story is of Prasannamati Mataji, who as a girl born into a rich family, decides to follow the difficult path of Jainism. On her path to diksha and of cutting ties with her family, she meets Prayogamati, who becomes her lifelong companion and friend. Her story is one of pain and suffering, yet with a thread of peace interconnecting it all. Peace that comes from following a path one loves. However, as with all the stories, the narrative does not stop by telling the stories of these unique individuals.

Each story is rich in detail of the religions and beliefs being described. Any reader of this novel will gain vast knowledge of these aspects. Learning through fascinating stories is an art William Dalrymple is quite aware of and he uses it in this novel as well.

Another story deals with the remarkable dance form called Theyyam, popular in Kerala. Here the story of Hari Das is told to us -- a well-known theyyam dancer, who otherwise digs wells and is a prison guard. Together with the tale of when Dalits and others who are considered to be of the lower castes get to become gods and have higher caste Brahmins touch their feet, we also discover quietly the fate of some Indian prisons, where inmates rule over the guards. Unobtrusively adding details of such things as they exist in India today, the reader is given a firsthand account of illegal happenings. These details are not the focus of the story but their clever mention cannot be ignored either.

Daughters of Yellamma is a sorrowful tale of devadasis, women dedicated as young girls to the goddess Yellamma and who have come to work in the sex trade. Their poignant tale speaks of hardship and sorrow, as they are forced into this field by their parents and then work to feed their families. The history behind this age-old custom and the trauma faced by devadasis today are all to be found within the pages of this book, which has daringly brought to light this controversial practice and yet managed to retain its objectivity.

The Singer of Epics is a tale of Mohan Bhopa, one of the two last known hereditary singers of a Rajasthani epic, The Epic of Pabuji. Actually a 4,000 line poem, it takes five days and nights to recite it completely, something rarely done today. Ancient practices connected to the recital of the poem have survived the ages and are followed religiously by the singers. Importantly, a male singer must also have a musical wife who could accompany him as he sings. The bhopas are described as 'shamans and bards' who have retained their traditional jobs, as these societies remained virtually untouched by the colonialists. William Dalrymple quietly mentions the survival of practices like sati and widow-burning in these areas of Rajasthan, which again form a vividly contrasting image to the modern India. The author dwells on this practice of singers of traditional poems, mentioning their existence in European countries.

The Red Fairy is a tale on Sufism in Sindh, Pakistan. It is a religion and mystical belief that attracts followers from Hindu and Muslim faiths. Sufi saints preached that all religions are one and one should try and attain fana, which is 'total immersion in the absolute'. Lal Peri Mastani, a famous lady fakir, is the character most in focus in this story. As her tale unfolds, the reader finds out the distance she travelled to find peace in the house of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. We are told of the recent attacks on Sufi shrines by the Pakistani Taliban, who are enforcing radical Islam on the believers of Sufism. Extremism is threatening the teachings of Sufi saints, who taught acceptance and tolerance and who succeeded in bringing Hindus and Muslims together.

Tashi Passang is a monk who took up arms to fight for his homeland, Tibet. He took up arms hoping to fight for Tibet, but he and others were instead mislead when they joined the Indian Army. They had to fight for Bangladesh, killing Pakistani soldiers. Tashi (now an old man) then set out on a path of redemption, seeking forgiveness for his actions and waiting till the time he could be worthy again of being a monk. It is a tale of a family destroyed, a way of living challenged, of people forced to flee. It is not a political text, rather a simple retelling of how things went bad.

The Maker of Idols takes place in Tamil Nadu where Srikanda Satpathy makes bronze statues of gods and goddesses and believes that the deity resides in the sculpture. Each figure, however, has a lifespan, after which the god leaves it. This lifespan is not fixed and needs to be determined by an astrologer. Making the statues is a task that follows very rigid guidelines. The idol maker and those he employs must be of a higher caste. Each stage in the idol-making process follows certain rules and rituals. The eyes are opened at the end, when 'divine powers' enters it and it becomes a deity. Srikanda insists that it is not the spirit of god residing in the statue, but rather the deity itself, maintaining that it is faith that gives life to a sculpture, without which, it is lifeless. This unique tradition is now threatened, the work is hard and the younger generation is more intent on pursuing other careers, while businesses that make a large number of sculptures have sprung up. Such statues, Srikanda tells us, will never have a god residing in them.

Manisha Ma Bhairavi is The Lady Twilight, a tantric who lives in Tarapith, praying to the goddess Tara. While this goddess is generally depicted as a frightening slayer, for Manisha Ma, she is gentle and benevolent like a mother. The reader learns the story of Manisha Ma and how she became a tantric. We learn about various tantric practices and how tantric sex has been sold in the West, which hardly follows or understands the actual practice. Details about the followers of Tara Ma are divulged in this story, portraying them not as scary men and women, but normal people who like to follow cricket on their radios.

The last of the nine stories is The Song of the Blind Minstrel. It is the story of Kanai, a baul, which in Bengali means 'possessed' or 'mad.' They live lives that run contrary to what the society dictates -- smoking ganja, singing and dancing, following certain practices of sex, philosophy and the belief that God is right here inside every person seeking the truth; a life that requires you to be on the road, have a guru and always follow the path of love. William Dalrymple refers to them as near atheists and humanists. The story of Kanai is once again one of belief guiding his steps at a young age as he sets out to become a baul. His companion Debdas belongs to a high caste Hindu family and decides to become a baul, rejecting everything his family taught him.

All characters in this book are uniquely rich; each has his or her own story, many of them face hardships and pain before finding through faith, their way to connect to God. They believe that their beliefs lead them to God and that it is their God who protects them and guides them. Call it chance, coincidence or destiny, but each one of them has found peace and joy on the path they chose to follow.
Politics of identity
  Mihaela Gligor  
  Identity Politics in India and Europe
By Michael Dusche
SAGE, 2010
PP 375, ISBN: 978-81-321-0304-2.

THE interdisciplinary and rapidly growing body of literature on recognition and identity politics deals with the question of how different cultures can manage to live together and how it is possible to reconcile a multitude of different identity-based claims for difference with a common sense of community and identity.

Many books on these themes have appeared during the last decade and most of them consider identity politics "in the name of the emancipation of disadvantaged groups with respect to gender, race, class, ethnicity or religion", as Michael Dusche's book also does.

'Identity Politics in India and Europe' examines the present perceptions of East and West as seen through the eyes of eminent scholars from India. It is a very important book on this subject, especially because it analyses both worlds, East and West, and it tries to offer not only a comparison between what identity politics means for each, but also extends the analysis to different areas, from culture to language, as ways for a better understanding of identity and differences.

Michael Dusche has the necessary background to do this comparison, holding a PhD in Philosophy and International Relations from the University of Frankfurt and currently being a fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Beyond this, Michael Dusche is the author of many articles on this topic, which were presented at international conferences or included in edited books published in India and Europe.

The first section of this book reviews the history of perceptions between the Europe of Latin Christianity and the so-called Muslim world starting from the seventh century when both were just about to emerge from opposite fringes of the decaying Roman Empire. "The portrayal of the Muslim 'other,' both in India and in Europe, draws on age-old stereotypes, whose genealogy can be traced back to the early encounters between the emerging world of Latin Christendom in Europe and the expanding world of Islam". The book begins from here.

The focus is on the origins of perceptions of Muslims as the threatening "other". Mentioning Edward Said's book Orientalism, Michael Dusche puts the right question: "In the light of what empirical evidence can we afford to speak of Europe and the Muslim world even after Said?" (P. 9), and he also gives the right answer: "Both civilizations share common reference points and origins in late antiquity and both categories allow for further differentiation... Both civilizations are marked by the fact that a single language of education, Arabic and Latin, and a common universe of reference, of religious symbols and narratives, expand over vast tracts of different local cultures and their respective vernaculars" (P. 9).

Orient and Occident, East and West, or even the dichotomisation into "us" and "them' are pairs of terms analyzed according to their specific meaning. The first encounters between Christians and Muslims, the processes of acceptance of identities and the differences between "populus Romanus" and "the barbarian people", as well as those between Catholicism and Islam are carefully presented in the first section of the book.

The chapter about "Islam in Western Europe: Al-Andalus" analyses the disputes among Christians, Jews and Muslims, those that ended in the Crusades, that broke all the rules and the bounds between the permitted and the forbidden. "The crusaders violated all acceptable standards of propriety in ways unthinkable to the locals, no matter whether they were Muslims, Christians or Jews" (P. 39).

However, increasingly, a new civilization took over from within the world spanning European colonial empires: that of modernity. The second part of the book is devoted to a characterization of that civilization from a theoretical point of view and to an analysis of its interference with older frames of reference. "Modern actors gain legitimacy and orientation from behavioural patterns and norms provided by the cultural reference frame, which also determines what is to be taken as the real character of the world, which things exist and which do not, what is to be reckoned with in terms of natural laws, social conditions, and so on" (P. 51).

While analysing "Culture and Politics in Modern Politics", the author starts from John W. Meyer"s sociology and Amartya Sen's opinion about "West and Anti-West" and considers that "the debates surrounding 'Western Science' versus 'Eastern Spirituality', 'Western Values' versus 'Asian Values', 'Western conceptions of human rights' versus 'African' or 'Islamic human rights' all point to the same phenomenon: an excessive fixation with the West and, consequently, a propensity to define one's post-colonial identity reactively as 'anti-West' (P. 52).

We can't make a sharp distinction between what is purely Western and what is purely Eastern. "Nobody would deny the usefulness of the trigonometric concept of 'sine' and 'cosine' and the decimal numeral system including the number zero in mathematics even though they are of Indian origin" and as well we can't deny the Western concepts of "individual liberty, democracy and progress" and the fact that we, as humans have need of all of them.

As for identity, the concept is used not only regarding politics or religious beliefs, but also regarding language or culture. "Considering that language gives us the most sophisticated tools to express who we are and considering that language, too, has to rely on commonly accepted patterns of communicative interaction, the symbolic representation of our identity is in need of common acceptance among the users of the language" (P. 84). As social phenomenon, language is the medium through which individuals express their thoughts and act in different circumstances, and it has a very important role.

The identity of a group of people can be expressed through their language. With regard to culture, its sphere "is defined by reference to symbols, metaphors or symbolic actions with characteristic meanings" (P. 90). So, "identity" can be seen as a sum of linguistic, cultural, religious or/and political identities, all confined into the same person or group of persons. "Identity" is that which makes the difference between "us" and "them'.

This complex relationship between religion and political status of a society is the subject of the third part of the book. The author investigates challenges to the established normative order in India and Europe. The methodology combines qualitative methods in the form of 20 interviews conducted with academics in India, with historical and philosophical analyses. These are set in the historical context of relations between Europe and the Muslim World and analysed from a theoretical angle drawing from theories of modernity, conceptions of justice and notions of identity politics.

Michael Dusche's interlocutors are Professors of Philosophy, Sociology or Political Sciences, from New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai or abroad. The discussions move from women rights to political independence; from intolerance and multiculturalism to leftist politics in Bengal or Westernisation of the Bollywood; pointing on the differences between Hindu and Muslim ways of living; taking religion as the starting point or as the ultimate conclusion; with many accents on the individualities of Indian culture among all the other and the role of its traditions into this globalised world.

The freedom of speech and academic freedom are the most important conditions used by Michael Dusche in composing this book. Reason and the reach of reason are important for intellectual elites of a country as India and reading these interviews one can see that quite clearly. Announced at the very beginning, Michael Dusche's thesis that "Perceptions of self, identity, social order and peace on the one hand and fears of instability, loss of self, disorder and violent conflict on the other hand seem to depend on each other in a dialectic way", was thoroughly demonstrated.

Very well structured, in three distinct but inter-correlated and cursive parts, the book should be of great interest to the world of social science scholars, especially those with specific interest in the history of ideas, modernity, transnational history, politics and cultural relations.
Excerpted from an extensive review published in the International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Vol. 2, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2009, Cluj University Press, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, PP 171-178.
Mihaela Gligor has a PhD in Philosophy and is working as Scientific Researcher in Humanities at Romanian Academy. She contributes regularly to The Herald of India.
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