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Writing about faith: Alternative histories

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

The launch of Nine Lives, William Dalrymple’s search for the sacred in modern India, was the kind of spectacle that gladdens even a publisher’s withered heart. The Char Bagh in Delhi was packed, and between Baul singers and a dancing Dalrymple (he joined in when the theyyam dancers took stage), we were much entertained.

Missing from the audience were egg-throwers, the kind who prevented the Sanskrit scholar and writer Wendy Doniger from being in India for the launch of her book, The Hindus.

Dalrymple’s is very much a travel writer’s book, an exploration of nine practitioners of different faiths in modern-day India where the writer remains an offstage presence, the silent holder of the tape recorder.

Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History asks how many versions of Hinduism we might have. The perspective shifts as she examines the sacred scriptures through the lens of Dalit history, through the silenced, edited but often surprisingly explicit voices of women and through explorations of the role of animals in Hinduism.

Personally speaking, I’m glad that no eggs were sent sailing in the direction of Dalrymple at his book launch, but there’s an interesting question here: why would Doniger’s brand of scholarship hit a visceral vein of resistance, while Dalrymple’s travelogues fall into the category of the acceptable?

is a fast-paced book, moving swiftly from the perspective of a Jain nun contemplating the slow and voluntary relinquishing of her life to the dilemma of the Dalit theyyam dancer, Hari Das, who shuttles between his job as a prison warden to his life as a man in the grip of religious ecstasy. Today’s devadasis are haunted by the fear of an HIV-positive report; a Tantric in Tarapith reveals a place where “even the most damaged and marginal can find intimacy and community”; the Sufis of Sehwan battle the demands of neo-Wahabbis that they stop preaching their brand of ishq. These are compelling contemporary stories, and at times Dalrymple seems to be channelling a modern-day avatar of Kipling, who was so fascinated by India’s multiplicity of faiths.

Nine Lives is written simply, perhaps too simply — the author’s withdrawal into the background gives these stories the feel of journalistic snapshots, and more of Dalrymple’s insights might have given the book more rigour and staying power. But embedded in each individual’s stories are disturbing questions about faith and the way it’s practiced in 21st century India. “I have tried… to keep the narrator firmly in the shadows,” Dalrymple writes. “By rooting many of the stories in the darker and less romantic sides of modern Indian life, with each of the characters telling his or her own story, I hope to have avoided many of the cliches about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.” He has succeeded in both aims, perhaps all too well with the first.

Why is Dalrymple’s book, with all its questions about the continuing exploitation of the devadasis and the struggles of a devout Dalit, not seen as offensive? Perhaps because he presents himself as that age-old figure, the old India hand who is privileged to be a traveller, who can witness “our” traditions from a different vantage point.

Doniger’s work has been challenged for years by the Hindu rightwing, whose essential point is that her reading of the scriptures is sexualised and sacrilegious. Perhaps what really disconcerts and offends those who throw literal or metaphorical eggs at the professor is that she lays claim to a far wider corpus of knowledge than is commonly found to be acceptable.

Whether it’s her re-interpretation of Sita, or her calm unbundling of the many different versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or her questioning of the rites listed in the Vedas, Doniger is threatening because of her immense scholarship. She’s the “outsider” who knows as much, and in many cases, more, about the Hindu scriptures and traditions than her most fierce opponents. I find it more than a little saddening that she would be advised to stay away from India at this point, or that she evokes a knee-jerk reaction from the egg-throwing brigade. (Shouldn’t egg-throwing be condemned as a ritual unsanctioned by our holy traditions, incidentally, since it’s a rite that we’re importing from foreign, Western shores?)

“This is a history, not the history, of the Hindus,” Doniger emphasises; and this is perhaps why she is seen in some Indian circles as so dangerous. By its very title, The Hindus: An Alternative History suggests that Hinduism has several competing histories rather than one sanctioned version. For today’s religious fundamentalists, this is a terrifying idea that threatens the authorised version of history they would prefer to preach, uphold and impose.


First Published: Tue, October 20 2009. 00:46 IST