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May Books 16) The Age of Kali

16) The Age of Kali, by William Dalrymple

I admit to a youthful fascination with William Dalrymple, who was at Cambridge a couple of years ahead of me and was much talked of (though rarely seen) in the Catholic chaplaincy, which I frequented. And his first book, In Xanadu, was the sort of adventure I always wished I could go on. (It has helped inspire me to the occasional much more modest quest of my own.)

Until today I hadn't read any of his later books though we have a couple on the shelves. The Age of Kali, to be honest, is a bit disappointing. First off because of the form - it is a collection of pieces written for different journals at different times in the 1990s, and there is occasional repetition from one piece to the next, with no overall guiding structure. Second, because of this, the book lacks any synthesising introduction or conclusion, apart from a page at the very beginning explaining the concept of the Age of Kali, the Kali Yuga.

Having said that, what you are left with is a series of very readable, vivid, in-depth essays on particular places, personalities or events; we start with sectarian violence in Bihar, and end with the Bhutto family. The book is mainly about India, but there are excursions also to Sri Lanka, Réunion, and of course Pakistan. (But for some reason not Bangladesh.) And India is, of course, a fascinating subject, about which I learnt almost everything I know as a result of reading Kipling, Rushdie, River of Gods, and rparvaaz. (Another of the unread books on my shelf is John Keay's India: A History.)

However, what comes across from Dalrymple's account is an India descending into terminal anarchy and violence, where the old days of the Raj are much missed and the new world is uncertain and probably a Bad Thing. The book is nine years old now, and India doesn't actually seem to have disintegrated into anarchy, or even into the statelets foreseen by ianmcdonald in his novel, so I have to wonder how fair the picture painted actually is. And I am dubious about the fact that almost the only aspect of British rule which Dalrymple criticises is that it ended.

Still, it will spur me on to have another go at Keay.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:
  1. Eragon by Christopher Paolini
  2. Deception Point by Dan Brown
  3. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 19th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
I liked "From the Holy Mountain" much better.
May. 19th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
"From the Holy Mountain" is very much my favourite Dalrymple book.

I've read them all (except the new one). I found out about him when White Mughals came out. Its subject is very close to my own PhD research (same period, different part of India) and I was interested to find a mainstream book talking about the period when the British still went out there and appreciated Indian people and culture.
May. 19th, 2007 03:01 pm (UTC)
I have only read _A City of Djinns_, and although flawed [especially since he trots out the Hindutva lines], it is a good read. His obvious affection for the city is unmistakable.

Keay's book has a lot of errors though, and I didn't really make it past his chapter on Mughals. _Freedom at Midnight_ [Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre] is a good book to read on the Raj and its ending. Amartya Sen's _The Argumentative Indian_ is another excellent read.

Regarding his description, well, people [me included] have been decrying the end of the world for millennia. ;)

There do exist people who long for the good old days or the Raj, or the Emergency, but they are few and far in between. India isn't exactly anarchic, but it definitely is Chaos Theory in action, and we do seem to like it that way. :)
May. 19th, 2007 06:00 pm (UTC)
> India isn't exactly anarchic, but it definitely is Chaos Theory in action, and we do seem to like it that way. :)

LOL! ahhhhhhhhhh splendid, I was there this week and that's a brilliant description. Oddly enough I bought a copy of Freedom At Midnight at the airport on the way back!
May. 19th, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC)


_Freedom at Midnight_ is brilliant. Very well researched and written. Once you are in a few chapters, it is a very hard book to put down. I was mesmerised from page 1, but then it is a book on one of my favourite periods in Indian history.

Another good book is _India, a million mutinies now_. V.S. Naipaul wrote it, and it is a delightful read. The prose is lyrical, and by this book Naipual had run through the worst of his bile, so very little of his criticism is unwarranted. Though the India Naipual wrote about in that book has already changed a lot...
May. 21st, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
Intesting, William Dalrymple is quite scathing about 'Feedom at Midnight' in The Age of Kali. I enjoyed it myself, though I found the novelistic approach a little disconcerting at first. Their Five Past Midnight in Bhopal is very good though.
May. 22nd, 2007 04:45 am (UTC)
I didn't even notice the novelistic approach until I read your comment just now. :)

For me, that entire period is a motion picture, with sound, and lights, and colour, and background music, so a novel is tame in comparison. :)

I will now have to flip through _The Age of Kali_ just to find out what Darlymple disliked about the book.

I haven't read their book on Bhopal though, just this one, _O Jerusalem!_, _Is Paris Burning?_, and the book they wrote on that woman spy during WWII.
May. 19th, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
I didn't particularly like the bits of From the Holy Mountain that were about places I know, and much preferred the bits that were about places I didn't know. Which is interesting in and of itself. He's a good writer but I wonder what the fact:fiction balance in his writing is. I mean, he seemed to have very interesting conversations in Eastern Turkey with Kurdish building-site workers, which given that he speaks no Turkish or Kurdish that I know of and they, in my experience, no English left me kind of wondering...
May. 20th, 2007 07:39 am (UTC)
I know what you mean, I completely distrust Karen Armstrong because she goes way out on a limb on one or two things like Arianism where I know enough to disagree with her. As far as Church History goes Dalrymple scores much better with me, but the local politics? I know nothing. I assume that many of the reported conversations included an unmentioned translator, and that he simply doesn't tell us about all the times he couldn't cross the language barrier because they don't make such a good story.
May. 19th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
I've just started reading "The Last Mughal". I think he is a bit more down on British imperialism in this one. I was surprised to see how young he is - I had the idea he was one of those John Julius Norwich types.

Is "The Age of Kali" in some sense linked to the Thugs? I picked that idea up somewhere. I have just finished reading Mike Dash's "Thug", which reveals some startling secrets about the Thug cult, notably that they were not actually a cult.

For some reason Bloglines has decided not to tell me when your blog has been updated. Thanks Bloglines.
May. 19th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
> Another of the unread books on my shelf is John Keay's India: A History.

I read that a few years ago - I do recommend it, it's particularly strong on India's history before British involvement and Keay writes quite stylishly.

The best book I've yet read on India is Suketu Mehta's Maximum City which takes the lid off Mumbai and pokes a very sharp stick at what bubbles up. Certainly things in it rang very true this week in Bangalore.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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