I read City of Djinns by William Dalrymple and fell in love with his easy going, unbiased and interesting way of telling history. With great expectations, I picked up William’s next offering; Age of Kali and I got the shock of my life. After being used to his affable, patronizing style of telling Indian history, it took me quite a long time to adjust to his acidic treatment of major events of 1990’s India.
I must say that 1990s were a period of major upheavals in India, with significant events like Babri Masjid destruction and Mandal Commission leading to resentment of people due to Caste reservation and religious politics. Add to that the newly opened gates of globalization and the reluctant acceptance of MNCs, it did make India unstable and unsure of the future and as a person, trapped in the whirlwind changes of that tumultuous times, William must have anticipated the beginning of a Kalyug and ended up writing this dark book.
Well, Age of Kali is a collection of socio-political essays written by Dalrymple during his ten year long stay in India during 1989 to 1999 and covers the major cities and events of that time. True to his belief that India is passing through ‘Kalyug’, the Age of Destruction, William begins the book with description of the corruption and denigration of politics in Bihar, and continues his macabre tone in expressing his regret over the dark sides of India, exhibited in the form of traditions like Sati, abandonment of widows in Vrindavan and the renewed Caste War.
But, while reading Age of kali, I felt that William got a little too affected by the events and instead of writing about them in a neutral way, he himself got involved. He tried to act as a champion of underdogs in this book, taking potshots at the upper castes and Hindu majority, while trying to voice the sufferings of lower castes and Minorities in India.
Though, done with good intentions, due to this attitude, the book loses its sheen in the wake of present times, when all of us are aware of the actual implications of Caste reservation and the little good it has done to the needy, proving William wrong in his anticipation of helping poor and downtrodden people by giving them the benefit of reservation.
In an attempt to prove his title appropriate, Dalrymple concentrates a bit too much on the negative side of the story and fails to predict the good things, India would experience in the coming years when the dust has settled down. Most of the feelings of isolation, anger and riots were politically motivated and by the turn of century, the very same companies like McDonalds and KFC had achieved solid ground and India, as usual, accepted everything in its stride and even Indianized some of these ventures. Hence, the rambling regarding the gloomy state seems a bit too far-fetched and a deliberate attempt to present the impending doom, that never happened!
The first half of the book concentrates on one sided story of the changes and Indians unsavory response in those times and left me embittered and I, myself got too biased to enjoy the book in a passive way. However, in the second half, William rediscovered his neutral voice and the chapters regarding South Indian Temples, and the simple beliefs and traditions of unassuming populace were written excellently and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
All in all, it is a book that jolted me, exciting some hard core emotions , which colored my understanding of this book and I could not read or review it unbiasedly. I am planning to re-read it sometime in future, to see, how much of my own views would change with time.