Book Review · Books · Culture · India · Non Fiction · William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine-Lives-final-frontFor the longest time I couldn’t understand people who read Non Fiction for fun. I couldn’t imagine getting lost for hours in anything that resembled real life too closely. But even then travel writing and history never classified as boring. How could they when they carried the potential of mystery, charm, and the idea that such fantastic magical things actually happened Once upon a time…!

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple happens to be one of those books that envelope its readers in a world that is both intriguing and unreal. Now add to that that it’s shocking because it is real. In this book William Dalrymple explores the impact of modernization on some of the religions in India, through the stories of nine people. As he mentions in the Introduction, the writer remains mostly in the background while allowing his interviewees and their stories to speak for themselves. The characters are not exoticized (I know because I didn’t roll my eyes once at the narrative). However, their stories are somewhat exotic.

In the first story, The Nun’s Tale, a Jain nun struggles to remain detached as her best friend starves herself according to ritual. The second story, The Dancer of Kannur, is about a Dalit (a low caste) man who’s worshipped as a deity once every year. This was one of the more exotic stories. The why may be a spoiler, so if you’d rather not know skip on to the next paragraph. Okay. This story involves possession by the deity during which time the protagonist drinks the blood of a chicken.

The third story, The Daughters of Yellama, talks about the temple prostitutes who are revered by a large number of people in Karnataka but also equally shamed and criminalized – sometimes by the same people.

The Singer of Epics was one of the stories I found most enchanting. It tells the story of a Rajasthani story teller and the oral epic’s struggle for survival.

The two other stories that I liked best in this collection were The Monk’s Tale and The Maker of Idols. In the Monk’s Tale, Tashi Passang tells us about his decision to break his vows as a monk and take up arms against the Chinese during their invasion into Tibet; the unbearable hatred; and the guilt that still remains with him for having taken part in such violence. He also tells us how he eventually overcame his anger and hatred. It was both touching and inspirational. (For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading about monks. In fact, I remember pouring over the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my Only Fiction phase).

The Maker of Idols relates to us the story of Srikanda Stpathy, a bronze caster. It was interesting to read about the rituals and requirements in creating an idol. I also found the dialogue amusing. It made the story seem more personal and because of that, heartwarming.

In brief, The Red Fairy explores Sufism and its rift with mainstream Islam. The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel talk about Tantra and Baul philosophy. Both philosophies diverge from mainstream Hinduism by embracing the taboos of orthodox religion and rejecting socially accepted norms and traditions.

Nine Lives is a fascinating study into how religion is a major part of our identity, especially because it helps define our values, beliefs and priorities. Keeping up with the times while still preserving what we believe is an important part of us seems to be the struggle of a traditional society. Reflecting on this, it seems that most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives with religion in a separate box. The world doesn’t have time for religion that is all pervasive – not unless it’s heavily tweaked.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought the narrative was fairly objective, but not so much that the stories were dry and harsh. I liked the snippets of history and brief descriptions given by the author. It felt very much like I was being shown a story rather than being told one. I don’t think this book will disappoint regardless of whether you’re interested in history, religion, people, good writing, or just a good story.

‘Still, every day, I pray to our family deity, Kamakshi Amman, to change his mind and preserve the lineage. I have even promised to renovate her temple if my prayers are answered. But I know that if my boy gets high marks he will certainly go off to Bangalore – and it looks as if he will do well in his exams. For some reason all the Brahmin boys do well in maths and computer exams. Maybe that’s in the blood too – after all we’ve been making calculations for astronomy for 5, 000 years.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Srikanda, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s all part of the world opening up. After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.’ – page 204 (The Maker of Idols)

Adventure · India · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Ending My Day On A Jazz Note

I had an adventurous day, although that’s normal for me. Today’s adventure was slightly scary. I decided to take the bus into Pondicherry town all by myself. Everything was fine until I stopped to ask directions for the bus back home. The person who’d given me directions decided to follow me around and check if I had been listening to him. I got such a fright when I made a wrong turn and found him there asking me where I thought I was going. Then he tried to get me to sit on his cycle. When I refused he seemed to think he had the right to shout at me. I was so glad when a bus pulled up and the conductor told me they’d be going where I needed to. I didn’t even care when he “forgot” to return change for my bus ticket.

My evening was much more pleasant. I put up a presentation for my family on the history of jazz music. There wasn’t any important reason to – I just thought it would be a fun way to develop a deeper appreciation of the music. My father, brother and I enjoy listening to jazz music anyway. My mother listens to jazz as well, but I’m not very sure if she enjoys it as much as we do. She does like history though.  And my cousin, Amiya, seemed up for it as well. Plus we had the perfect weather to listen to this sort of music today! – refreshing cool breeze, uncharacteristic of Pondicherry, accompanied by light showers.

If you’d like to know more about the history of jazz music, and how it follows the history of America, this article offers a brief description..

I’ve included one of my favourite music pieces here. Hope you like it as much as I do!


India · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Joys Apart From Reading

The only reading that I’ve managed to get done this past week is a book of short stories by Muriel Spark. I’m disappointed to say that I only managed to read 3 of the 5 stories, although the reason I’d selected it was that it looked so beautifully slim, perfect for my busy week.

I have been teaching the kindergarten class at a nearby school for the past three weeks. It has been an exhausting affair. I love them all very much but by the end of the day all I want to do is sit down and space out. Of course, the little cuddly children make up for being such a handful with their funny stories, amusing antics, the wilted flowers, and indecipherable pictures that they bring me. It’s also cute when I call one child ‘a cute little thing’ and the others say, “Me?” “Me?” And when I repeat the same thing to them they’re so pleased their eyes light up.

The other day I tried to tell them that when I was speaking they should listen because I would ask questions later: “I am the teacher and you are the students. Who are you?” “We are the childrens!” came the exuberant reply. On Friday, one little boy corrected me, “It’s not ‘drank water’. It’s ‘drinked water’.” Working with little children who are just beginning to learn to speak in English is doing funny things to mine. Saying things like, “What for me?” and infusing Tamil words into my English has become more natural. My Tamil comprehension has also gone up incredibly. Yesterday it was pointed out to me by my brother that my accent has changed as well in the way I stress certain syllables and pronounce certain words. I think I understand now how different accents are picked up effortlessly.

My days are definitely not dull. I have children who wipe their noses on my clothes while pretending to hug me; who do cartwheels when I tell them to stand in the corner; little drama queens in the making that fight over favourite chairs and beg me not to force them to be friends with each other. But I miss having the time to read for fun. That last book by Penelope Fitzgerald has reminded me how lovely it is to get lost in a novel of beautiful words and fictional thoughts. I will have to write on Muriel Spark’s book of short stories in my next post. DSC07640

Adventure · India · Personal

One Early Morning, And A Thrilling Walk Back In Time

On Thursday my brother, Siddharth, knocked at my front door when I thought he was far away in Tamil Nadu. What a fantastic surprise! While I am anyway the sort of person who loves having family visit, this arrival brightened me because my brother is fun to spend time with and of course, I don’t have to make an effort to see that he is constantly entertained.

This morning Siddharth and I went for a walk to the Pashan hills at 6 am. It was indescribably beautiful. It felt as though we’d left the city behind, when really we were in the heart of it.

I took a few pictures. None, however, document the event as attentively as my senses and memory did. The silence was perfect. The kind that made us quiet our voices, focus on our steps and look around in amazement while we absorbed the things we never imagined to encounter just 30 minutes away from my apartment.

It reminded me of the time we went mushroom picking in the Swedish woods. The pine needles muffled our footsteps while simultaneously filling our senses with its heady perfume. So absorbing and personal was the experience of hunting mushrooms in this enchanting place that we’d have to call out to one another when we found we’d drifted somewhere alone. There was no visible path of any sort and every tree looked the same. It was gorgeous and amazingly frightening at the same time. There was the very real possibility of getting lost in these woods if we wandered too far away. There was an equal chance for the inopportune confrontation with Moose – an idea that brought feelings of wonder and fear.

Assuredly, Indian forests do not house Moose – at least not in the state of Maharashtra. Some forests here caution of tigers, leopards and elephants. But not this place. Today while whispering in the little forest of Vetal hill we saw a peacock! I wanted to take a picture of it but it walked away. Yes I know how absurd that sounds. But with its head bobbing it actually did a fast walk too far across the forest for me to keep up.

We saw 9 other peacocks in the course of our walk. Later over breakfast we made a list of the different birds we’d spotted. Not counting the birds we were unable to correctly identify, we saw 12 different kinds of birds!

•Great Indian Roller
•Green bee eater
•Red vented bulbul
•Cattle egret
•Crow pheasant

We also saw the cutest weaver bird nest beneath an overhanging rock on the quarry. Oh! Did I not mention that at the top of the hill was a quarry?

Vetal HillIt was so calm and quiet. And thrilling! It made me feel glad that I knew how to do yoga and that perhaps I could try doing some Surya Namaskars here. Or maybe meditating. Or better still, Praying. It was the perfect shot of joy to remind us how magnificent it is to be alive and have command of all our senses.

Another exciting feature of this morning’s adventure included geocaching. And I was the person (between my brother and me) who discovered the much hunted container under a rock wedged beneath boulder and tree. Oh the rush to be the one who finds a tiny container with many little notes from people who were here too! To think that we’re now part of a secret that cannot be shared with just any muggle! (By the way I was an ignorant too until recently initiated by my knowledgeable brother).

One other incident that made this morning memorable was our encounter with the Great Indian Roller. We were returning from the quarry towards the foot of the hill when we saw this huge boulder with an interesting looking bird perched on it.  We also noticed a nearby photographer gingerly stepping around clicking pictures of the bird. Of course he was being careful because he didn’t want to frighten it away. But the funny thing was, was that the Great Indian Roller seemed perfectly aware of the photographer’s attentions and was quite pleased with it all! It even slow-hopped in a circle remindful of a twirl that gave us a lovely view of its pretty colours. You could even imagine it pouting and deliberately posing by the way it arched its neck. And waited. Turned. Looked back. Waited. What fun to watch a bird that flaunts itself. It makes one marvel at its individuality!

Today turned out to be one of the best adventures I’ve had in ages that I simply had to crawl out of hiding and write about it. It was incredible to discover such quiet beauty that brought back memories of time spent in Hosur, Tamil Nadu when my father used to wake us early in the mornings and take us on long walks across the country through similar terrain. On our way back we’d sometimes stop for breakfast in one of the tiny little shops that were just waking up. Such treasured memories! But the addition that makes today’s affair unforgettable was my facetious little brother, Siddharth. How we laughed this morning! – at ourselves, at the birds and their silly antics,  and at the stories we made up on our charming walk.

The Quarry

Culture · India · Personal

My Final Post on Kashmir

It’s been two weeks since we got back from Kashmir and I still haven’t stopped talking about it. This post is actually a continuation of the last post (I noticed it was too long only after I began typing it in!) 

Day 3 : We woke up that morning in a mad rush to be ready by 7.30. The vehicle we’d booked would be coming to take us to Gulmarg. Up until we got there I didn’t know much about Gulmarg, apart from its name. I soon found out that it’s a famous skiing place and, of course, another favourite Bollywood haunt. 

We hired a guide so we were able to get tickets sooner than the others waiting in line. Tickets for what? The cable car to the top, of course! The view from the top of the mountains in Gulmarg is supposed to be absolutely breathtaking as it overlooks the Srinagar valley. It baffled me, though, that the cable cars were called Gondolas. But never mind that. The important thing was that we got tickets to both Phase 1 and Phase 2, something that was rather rare that day.

With the weather turning dismal, the only reason we managed to get tickets to Phase 2 was that we were one of the first in line that morning. Although it was foggy and soon began raining, our spirits were far from dampened. It was especially adventurous when there was a sudden power cut and we were suspended some 3000 metres above ground. We were asked to be very still and all was well in 20 minutes. The guide informed us, rather proudly I must say, that he had experienced power cuts mid air for up to an hour! A little difficult to envy that.

See how foggy it was!

We were somewhat amused to find tourists bundled in heavy winter wear at the top of the mountain. We made do with light sweaters and stoles – and later had to thaw with lemon tea and french fries. But in spite of our numb fingers and frozen faces we still had a lovely time at Gulmarg.

Pretty flowers in pink, purple, white, and some yellow covered the mountain side. There were also quite a few interestingly shaped boulders that caught our attention. Even the grass was noteworthy with baby cabbages and succulent little leafy plants. I even saw a couple of mushrooms! Our journey to the top was perfect until the guide informed us that had it not been for the fog we’d have been treated to an enthralling view of absolute scenic beauty! Unfortunately, the fog was too thick and we weren’t able to see the Srinagar valley.

We also saw a couple of rather bored looking mountain goats on our way back

Although we’d spent just three days in Kashmir it felt like we’d been away longer. The quiet old world charm that Kashmir is still steeped in, made this trip different from any other (It helped that we went in September and not during the tourist peak season). Both luxuriously relaxing and blissfully rejuvenating, Kashmir was the perfect mini vacation away from the hustle and bustle of routine. But what made it the perfect escape from reality was knowing that it was only a little more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from home!

The view from our guest house the evening before we left Srinagar.
Culture · India · Personal

Beautiful Kashmir : Part 2

Shikaras on the Dal Lake

So our first day in Kashmir  was spent visiting and admiring the Mughal Gardens. Our second day began with us waking up at 9 and Maria didi dashing off to the University. The rest of us, Abhilasha, Nandita, and I, went for a walk after breakfast and tried exploring the campus a little. 

We collected different kinds of leaves and I picked a few flowers  when no one was looking. Except for us, it seemed like everything else was still and mysterious. The tall Chinar trees added a whole new dimension to the picture we’d had of Kashmir on arrival. The Chinar trees were supposedly imported from Iran when the Mughals were ruling India.

But this is disputed. The population in Kashmir is still largely Muslim. In fact that was one reason we’d packed only conservative Indian clothes to wear there. We especially wanted to blend in after someone, meaning well, advised us that although the Kashmiri government encourages Tourism, tourists aren’t particularly liked. But after having spent three of the loveliest days there with everyone being so nice and helpful, we found that last part difficult to accept. 

For lunch one of the professors took us to the university canteen where we had a most delicious meal! Usually, I don’t enjoy meat all that much, but what we had that afternoon was a gourmet’s delight! I think what we had was chicken kebab. For certain, it was something with chicken. And we ate it with Naan. It tingles my taste buds even as a memory!

Almost all Kashmiri food is served with a salad/ chutney/ raita. I’m not sure what it was called but it enhanced the flavours of the curry. From what I could tell, it was made of mint, grated radish, and a few other herbs, all of it mixed in curd. I think we did ask for the recipe but can’t seem to recall anything specific.Well, all in all that was a fantastic meal that was only slightly overshadowed by conversation that was pretty sparkling. 

Kashmiri girls really don’t wear jeans! Actually they do, but they don’t wear them outside their home. How glad we were for that clever person who advised us to pack our salwar kameez, saris, and chudidar suits!

After lunch we were taken shopping by a very nice Kashmiri girl. Her uncle was the owner of a Kashmiri handicrafts emporium, she told us,and would be willing to subsidize rates for us. Not only did we get the best discounts on Kashmiri handicrafts but we were also offered Kahwah, Kashmiri Tea. Apart from Pashmina wool, Walnuts, Apples, its scenic beauty,  Papier Mache  handicrafts, and Pherans, Kashmir is famous for its Saffron. And the main ingredient in Kahwah is the saffron. I cannot even begin to describe how delicious the tea was. The flavour was delicate and its fragrant intoxicating. The herbs in the tea relax and have other health benefits if taken with a natural sweetener. Imagine something so yummy being equally  healthy! These three tourists were in love with everything about the place. 

After having shopped to our hearts’ content we went to the Dal Lake. We actually wanted to take a Shikara to the Char Chinar. But as it was getting dark we just had time to pose in one and then jump into a motor boat to the Char Chinar. 

The Char Chinar is a famous spot in Srinagar as many Hindi movies have been shot there. It gets its name ‘Char Chinar’ after the four Chinar trees on the four corners of this tiny island. By the time we got there it was already dark but still breath taking. On three sides there were mountains and on one side sparkling lights from the city. The perfect view to close Day 2.

This is actually a much longer piece but I don’t want to scare anyone away with a 2000 word post so I will be posting the rest tomorrow. 

India · Personal

Beautiful Kashmir: The Mughal Gardens

I’m not sure how to say this: In my last post I mentioned that I was looking forward to describing my trip to Kashmir. Well, now that I’ve actually sat down to it I’m at a loss for words to do justice to one of the loveliest experiences in my life! So far, when people ask me how I enjoyed my trip to Kashmir I say things like, “It was beautiful!” “We had such a fun time!”  ” It was like being in an old Bollywood movie!” or “It’s so green! And there are so many lakes! Just being there made me feel at peace.” I know that those descriptions are pretty useless, so I’m going to try and relive my trip to Kashmir as best as I can.

It all began the Thursday before we left for our trip. My mother’s friends, Aunty Pamela and Maria Didi, were home for tea after work and Maria Didi was moaning about how the Chief Proctor of the University of Kashmir kept calling to ask if she would agree to be an examiner for the University’s Biochemistry exam. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to visit one of India’s most difficult places to visit! (Until we visited it for ourselves, Kashmir was a distant dream locked and inaccessible for having been turned into a war zone). I actually put my thoughts into words and said that had I got a similar opportunity I wouldn’t miss it for the world. So she told me to come.

Really??! Not only did I do a happy little dance to show that I accepted, in less than half a minute I was at the computer looking up the weather in Srinagar and the places we could visit there. But apart from the weather I needn’t have taken the trouble to find out more. Once we walked out of the airport in  Srinagar we found that there was someone waiting to receive us, drive us to the University, and take us to our room. From the time we got there until we left, we were treated with such hospitality that we were slightly overwhelmed towards the end.

The Travelling Four

My first impression of Srinagar was that the weather was so pleasant and the air was so clean! It was so quiet, after having just come from Ludhiana. Unlike most other airports that I’ve been to, there were very few buildings. There were flowers everywhere! And there were just the right amount of people – not too many like there are in Delhi, and not too few like there are in Gothenburg, Sweden (where we actually asked where all the people were!)

Once we were in our room we found that we were very exhausted. Maria Didi was in a rush to get to the university where the students were waiting for their exam to begin. But Abhilasha (Maria Didi’s friend), Nandita (Maria Didi’s two year old daughter), and I, freshened up, had lunch, and then fell into a coma until Maria Didi called at 4.30 to say that the university had arranged a vehicle to pick us up in 15 minutes. Someone would be coming to takes us to and show us around the Mughal Gardens that evening. 

Before I say anything else, let me mention that many of the Bollywood movies up until the early 80s were shot in Kashmir. These days actors prefer to dance in Switzerland.


One step into the Shalimar Mughal Garden and I was transported into an old Bollywood movie in which I was the heroine. (Beautiful things have this effect on me. It comes with having too vivid an imagination). Looming mountains wrapped in cloudy scarves were the background. The pathway was divided by dark red flowers that reflected prettily  on the water which they seemed to guard. We were informed that the cloudy mountains were the source of this sparkling stream. On both sides of the foot path were lawns of the greenest grass and interesting trees and bushes, many of which we don’t see often in the plains. It was a scenery out of a picture book, but better because it was real. 

We also found out that the government of Kashmir has taken strict measures to preserve the Chinar trees, to the extent that even an uprooted tree is not allowed to be chopped, used or sold without government permission. In the above photo, you can see part of a Chinar tree that was uprooted in a storm.

Our next stop was the Nishat Mughal Garden. It was already dusk when we entered. We thought it a pity, because the Nishat Mughal Garden was even more beautiful than the Shalimar Mughal Garden! If only we’d have had more daylight. 

The entire state of Kashmir is a valley surrounded by picturesque mountains that turn menacing by night, as we found out that evening in the Nishat Mughal Garden. In the Shalimar Garden the pretty flowers had captivated our attention. In contrast, the dark blue grey mountains of the Nishat Mughal Garden brought to mind the Mountain from The Hobbit. They filled the mind with gloomy and frightful impressions. But like some things that are frightening beyond words, they also inspired awe.The eerie silence contributed to making the mountains even more foreboding in the late evening light.

Across the mountains and the garden was the Dal lake. Some things just cannot be captured on film. It’s even more difficult when you have a tiny camera that gives trouble in the dark. 

I am beginning to think that perhaps it would be a good idea for me to describe my trip in bits and pieces. This post has turned out to be longer than I expected and further descriptions will only make it longer. In my next post I will try and describe other experiences that enhanced our trip to Srinagar, including Gul Marg, the pretty hill station that overlooks Srinagar.