The BS Column: Writing faith: alternative histories

(Published in the Business Standard, October 20, 2009. Dalrymple wrote in to tell me about the link between his book and Doniger’s: “I was the moderator at the infamous SOAS lecture at which the saffron egg was thrown at Wendy, and that it was my clumsy version of Kevin Costner’s Bodyguard routine, attempting to protect Wendy from the yolk– which in the event landed behind us both, splattering on the screen where images of Sita were being projected– that led her to dedicate the book to me as ‘comrade in the good fight’.”)

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 Nine Lives 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?

Nine Lives 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.





3 responses to “The BS Column: Writing faith: alternative histories”

  1. Shefaly Avatar

    Nila: Wonderful post! I'd add two more reasons to the list of why WD and WD (Hah!) are treated differently. Wendy is a woman and dares to talk about sexual themes in the same breath as religious ones. The combination together is too much for the potentates and self-deployed keepers of Hinduism. William on the other hand is a man who is cursorily describing what he saw not analysing anything or challenging anything.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    As usual, wonderfully written. However, here is my question- where do these right wing fundamentalists, get their ammunition? I believe that someone who is taken to the culture of egg throwing to counter scholarship, is not of an adequate intellect to read and really understand Wendy's books. I have tried to read them and I can tell you they are not easy bed time reads for a mediocre mind as me ! Given this, which of these fundamentalists has really had the time to read through these things between their egg throwing binges? Are there scholars out there who just dont have the mettle to counter WD through a discussion, and use their rabble rousing talent to counter a thesis? I know this sounds like a strange conspiracy theory, but I really want to know who tells these people to go after someone such as WD?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Anonymous: Apparently there are hindu far-right discussion boards (among other things), with idiots rousing exactly rabble such as this.Ashwin

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