William Dalrymple’s Uneven Vision of Modern India

William Dalrymple is a talented writer who can very often turn out gorgeous descriptions of lands, peoples and the built environment. As might be expected, when I encounter writings about places and times with which I consider myself to be intimately familiar, I experience an acute ambivalence. Such is the case with Dalrymple’s work.   This is nowhere better on display than in his work on modern India, where I’ve never found his writing dull, but sometimes disagree with the analysis or judgments offered.

Here are two tiny examples, selected from The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters (Penguin India, 1998).

1. In the chapter titled ‘Finger-Lickin’ Bad: Bangalore and the Fast-Food Invaders’, Dalrymple writes:

[A]lthough since 1947 India has had an understandable fondness for protectionist isolationism, the one place you would not expect to find any such introversion was Bangalore, which has long prided itself, with some reason, on being the most cosmopolitan city in India.

The invocation of ‘cosmopolitan’ here is interesting for residents of Mumbai, that seething, ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse metropolis–so marvelously evoked in Suketu Mehta‘s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found–might disagree. Where does Dalrymple find Bangalore’s cosmopolitanism? We are told in the next paragraph:

Bangalore, for example, was the one town which never removed the British statues from its parks: to this day Queen Victoria, Empress of India, still gazes out benignly over the melee of rickshaws and Ambassador cars snarled up at the city’s principal roundabout.

I do not think my surprise at finding out that the non-removal of a statue of Queen Victoria in an Indian city is evidence of ‘cosmopolitanism’ marks me as an outlier. And neither will, I think, my puzzlement that such a rich concept has been so narrowly conceived.

2. In the chapter titled ‘Two Bombay Portraits’ Dalrymple, writing of the growth of an Indian pop-music industry and its associated stars, notes:

[Till the eighties] no Indian rock band had really grasped the imagination of the public or had any significant commercial success. The truth was that in the 1970s and eighties India was not yet ready. Even in the thoroughly Westernised commercial capital of Bombay there were no clubs and no pubs: no (open sex), no drugs, and hence no rock’n’roll….But around 1989…a subtle change took place.

And from there Dalrymple is off and running, telling us a well-worn tale of the changes wrought in India by the economic liberalization regimes of successive governments.

No teenager or university student though, who grew up in India in the eighties, will recognize the sober, rock-music-less India Dalrymple tries to depict. The metropolitan university campuses of India played host to many, many rock bands, admittedly mostly confined to playing covers; hash was almost as common a drug on university campuses as was alcohol (and in some circles, more common, because it was cheaper); and of course, Dalrymple ignores the fact that bhang was consumed widely all over the country, and not just in the metropolitan centers.

It didn’t need economic liberalization–and supposedly the new ‘Westernization’ it introduced–to induce in Indians the desire to get high. That inclination is a little more universal and perennial than Dalrymple imagines.

3 comments on “William Dalrymple’s Uneven Vision of Modern India

  1. Satadru Sen says:

    All good points. Bangalore’s cosmopolitanism has to do with it’s post-1980s influx of middle-class professionals from other Indian states. It’s totally different from Bombay’s cosmopolitanism, which is more pervasive across classes, and much older. And obviously, ‘benign’ Victoria has nothing to do with it.

    It’s been a while since I read ‘The Age of Kali,’ but I recall (perhaps inaccurately) that he associates the notion of Kaliyuga with Kali the Goddess, which is the sort of mistake a first-year undergraduate in an American classroom would make. But it’s typical of WD, who has turned a fairly superficial knowledge of India into a private industry. A travel writer, after all. If we’re going to look to white authors for nuanced readings of India, we’re far better off with Mark Tully or even Kipling.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Satadru,

    To be fair to WD, he does mention the migration of tech professionals to Bangalore in the 90s. But still, its the leadoff example that sets the tone, especially since given the context of the chapter, that migration is precisely the thing to focus on.

    And yes, he does associate Kaliyuga with Kali – in very lurid, sensational fashion. I was struck by that as I started reading the book.

  3. ashokbhatia says:

    Good insight! It is surely possible to capture the spirit of Brand India in so many ways, WD’s being only one take.

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