Under my byline

Author, impresario

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 17 October 2009

Dalrymple (c) Premnath S Kudva 2007Any book that William Dalrymple writes is likely to be a bestseller, including his latest. Watching the salesman at work

“Ganja? I didn’t see any ganja, did you? I’ve never seen the stuff in my life!” says William Dalrymple, uproariously. I only asked because he was describing the celebrations at home after his grand book launch the previous evening, an event which included a performance by a small group of Bauls — Bauls who are friends of Dalrymple’s and currently lodged in a neat beige tent pitched on his lawn. Like many mystics, Bauls are known to smoke ganja.

“We chatted with the Bauls, we had Baul khana and we drank whisky. Truth be told, the Bauls drank Old Monk. No academic text on the Bauls mentions the important role that Old Monk plays in inspiring the Bauls to new heights of musical brilliance.” A round of culture, then, after a bout with the culturati.

At the launch, after the Bauls had sung, danced and drummed, a theyyam troupe from Kerala took the stage. The lead dancer, a man named Hari Das, wore an elaborate costume and his face was painted in such a way as to identify the god who would possess him and enable him to perform. A trio of drummers kept up a cracking pace. It really was a riveting experience, like pouring magic fertiliser on one’s pagan roots. At one point the possessed dancer stepped off the stage and danced down the aisle, scattering spectators and photographers with every twirl.

Happening to glance towards the wings just then, I saw a memorable sight. There was Dalrymple in his crumpled kurta, half-hidden behind a towering poster of the cover of his book — and he was beaming and rocking with glee.

“What were you thinking at that moment?” I ask now, in the bright morning light.

“I loved the whole thing,” he says, not quite answering my question. “So much so that it carried on here afterwards. None of us got to bed till 2:30.”

Well, if I were the author I’d have been thinking: what a fantastic and useful stunt.

It may have been called a book launch, but this was more like an extravaganza, a high-quality variety show with Dalrymple acting as host and impresario, reading aloud portions from his new book as introductions between each section. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is about religious experience at the extreme end of the vast spectrum of faith in South Asia, encompassing Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islam.

What’s more, “What you saw last night was round two of what is going to be, on and off, a year-long book tour and spectacular,” Dalrymple says. He just spent two weeks in England on a schedule packed with similar events — a sufi troupe from Pakistan also took part — and after India the caravan will move on to Pakistan, and, next year, to Europe and the USA. I’ve never heard of such an ambitious publicity exercise for a book.

Why this? I ask. “Partly I think book tours can be quite lonely,” says Dalrymple, all the while stroking his pet cockatoo, a beautiful white bird named Albinia (as it happens Alice Albinia, the expert young travel writer who published a book last year on the Indus river, is a cousin of Dalrymple’s, so it’s a family name) who can be seen alongside her master on newspaper pages across the land. “If you’re even quite a moderately successful international author, a book tour can easily take a year.” His fellow performers, he says, “are all old friends and we all thought it would be very nice to promote all our things simultaneously”.

Of the friends, Paban Das Baul, who led the Baul singers, has a new album out; so does Susheela Raman, the smoky-voiced British Tamil singer who wraps up the show with a modernised sung version of ancient Tamil Thevaram poetry (she gets all the cheers); and Mimlu Sen, who was Dalrymple’s interpreter with the Bauls, will see her own book on the Bauls (Baulsphere, Random House India, 2009) published in the UK next year. The publicity may well be useful to them, but Dalrymple remains the headliner.

In mock-marketing speech he adds, “The synergies have worked.” Whereas a bookshop reading might attract 200 people in the UK, he says, “In a music venue you’re pulling in everybody else’s crowds as well as your own, and you might get 2,000. It’s more fun and the publishers love it.”

Isn’t it rather expensive? “In the Barbican [in London, where they performed on September 25] we sold 3,500 tickets — we sold out. And everyone was paying 25 quid. Now we didn’t do much of that, but it pays for itself, and it’s just much more fun than four scholars sitting on a panel and picking each other’s books apart.”

And where did he get the idea? “One, I did a documentary on Sufi music four years ago called Sufi Soul [for the BBC’s Channel 4]. The guy who directed it, Simon Broughton, is a music impresario as well as a filmmaker, and he got all the Sufis to the Barbican, which coincided with the television release of the film — and it sold out. So we have a precedent.

“This particular group, though, we got to know each other and saw how we could integrate music and literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival,” an annual event which Dalrymple co-founded in 2006. “Susheela and Paban are virtually our house band there. There’s a human link in Sam Mills, Susheela’s husband, who was Paban’s producer.”

Complicated, but clear. “We may end up hating each other by the end of the year,” Dalrymple says, “but so far it’s been good fun and made good business sense.”

Primed for some scepticism from Indian reviewers (“Of all the subjects you can tackle in this country, there’s no subject which is more surrounded by minefields of cliché, of Orientalism” than mystics and religion), he adds, in what sounds like another dig at academics, “I make my living from books. I don’t have a stipend going” — nor, he says, a university house and pension. “If you have bad reviews, you die as a critically acclaimed writer, but any writer who lives by his writing, fiction or non-fiction, has to promote his books. Plus, it’s hard. I sit in this room without going out at all for the five months of the final draft. I’m just writing, writing, writing and frankly I’d like to get out of it after that!”

No problem with critical acclaim in the UK, I remind him — there, Nine Lives has fallen on reviewers like rain on parched earth.

“The context I think in the UK was that travel writing used to be a huge thing,” Dalrymple says. “I was very lucky that my first book, In Xanadu (Penguin, 1989), caught that wave.” In the last year or so he himself has written frequently for the British papers on British travel writing and the last, vanishing generation of great travel writers — Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark and his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, among others. More recently, he wrote a 4,000-word essay in the Guardian (“Home Truths on Abroad“, September 19) on the past and future of travel writing, suggesting that rather than the traditional travel narratives of the past, in a world weary of superficial travel, the new travel writing — and here he paraphrases the young travel writer Rory Stewart — “is that where an informed observer roots and immerses himself in one place, commiting time to get to know a place and its languages”. Then he quotes Thubron: “A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.”

And indeed, the reviewers have agreed. But the fact is, Dalrymple led them in that opinion. “As a writer, when you’re launching a book you sort of try to sow seeds for reviewers, and that Guardian piece was definitely trying to set the ground,” he says.

One aspect of the response which he doesn’t appear to have picked up on immediately, however, is a recognition that his nine lives — the life stories of the nine South Asian mystics and practitioners he narrates in this book — offer a mild but welcome antidote to the consumer focus of the modern economy, a reminder that there are still significant spaces, albeit few and shrinking, where the logic of the market and the mainstream do not wholly apply.

But, of course, the idea was at the core of Dalrymple’s purpose in this book, if tilted in a slightly different direction: “This is not a theory I air in the book” — where there is virtually no theorising at all — “but I think it’s true that the small cults, the devatas, the regional variants of the epics… are dying out. Mainstream Vaishnava cults are taking over from village goddesses, Tantric cults, mother goddesses, Devi cults, and you’re getting new, standard, urbanised national gods — Rama, Krishna. The same is true of Islam today, where you’re getting a Wahhabised, textual, middle-class Islam which is suspicious and hostile to local saints that have been the warp and woof of Indian Islam since the 12th century.”

There’s plenty of warp and woof in the book. Dalrymple’s technique, uncharacteristically, was to absent himself. “The very deliberate task I set myself in this book was to be a mirror and reflect, not to be a judge handing out sentences or marks. It’s always been my way as a writer to let people say their own things and if you disapprove of something only to show your disapproval by letting them hang themselves with their own rope, so to speak.” The technique works admirably in each chapter and with each of these tremendous characters with their hard-won lives, but leaves the collection as a whole without a common thread of argument. It is superb narrative journalism, but it doesn’t quite make a book.

The other thing Dalrymple forgets, or ignores, is that the writer is never absent. Even a mirror presents a reversed image, after all. He accessed these nine life stories through interpreters — “Show me any person who speaks Tibetan, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, various Rajasthani dialects,” he says, quite justifiably — yet he doesn’t properly account for the multiple filters these stories have passed through before arriving under the reader’s eyes. At any rate, this creative and pathbreaking publicity tour will put Dalrymple back at front and centre once again and make up for his supposed absence from the pages of his book.

William Dalrymple, Nine LivesNine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury
pp xvi + 288

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(Author photo © Premnath S Kudva)

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