The Age of Kali: Indian Travels Encounters By William Dalrymple

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    India is a country of such great culture and over centuries of invasions and fights for freedom, we as a country, have emerged as a powerful plethora of multitude of wonders. The Age of Kali is one such view of this country through Dalrymple's lens, as well as a short glimpse into the neighboring Pakistan.

    Dalrymple is witty, humorous and I might just add, extremely brave. Encapsulating the essence that is India in a few 400 pages in the manner in which he has, takes a rare talent. The book is impeccably researched. The present is presented with the context of its past and even if you have very less idea of the vivid history, Dalrymple makes it fun and interesting in his own way.

    The topics covered range from the political ascent of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, to Rajmata of Gwalior, Kingdom of Avadh, the sad story of Bhavri Devi in Rajasthan, caste wars and the practice of Sati Mata, the gradual progression of Bombay into a city of dreams, Bangalore's initial retaliation to foreign takeover in the form of protests against KFC and Miss World, Lucknow's immensely sad history and death of culture, to the Goddess Parashakti in the South. It then slowly takes us towards the story of the formation of LTTE in Sri Lanka and the invasion of Goa. The last 2 chapters are dedicated to Pakistan - specifically Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto.

    I am basically in awe of the writing and the fact that Dalrymple has such immaculate observational skills. Also, he presents the facts without any bias. Of course, inherently I could read between the lines and my own biases did crop up since the topic is so close to my heart - INDIA.

    There is an incident where Dalrymple is observing the ritual of a newly married woman praying to a Goddess in the South and the temple only allowed women when the bride was praying. So Dalrymple held on till the time their prayers were done just to go and observe what were the prayers about. It is hilarious in some such places, where one can imagine Dalrymple hiding till the situation is clear and then going and satisfying his curiosity.

    My particular favorite part was when Dalrymple describes Bombay. Oh! The nostalgia. The era of rap music that descended on Bombay through Baba Sehgal, the rise of Shobha De into the elite circles and the fact that Bombay as a metro has had this typical ability to hold on to its roots and yet progress in a manner in which only Bombay can - had me almost reminiscing the old Doordarshan days before Star took over with its cable connection.

    My favorite passage however was the below, where Dalrymple takes us through some realities that India hasn't been able to shun thus far -

    “They destroyed all the equipment, all the medicines. The Harijans – the people we used to call Untouchables – used to come a hundred miles for treatment.’ ‘But I thought Untouchability was outlawed at independence,’ I said. ‘Technically it was,’ replied Tyagi. ‘But do you know the saying “Dilli door ast”? It means “Delhi is far away.” The laws they pass in the Lok Sabha [Indian parliament] make little difference in these villages. Out here it will take much more than a change in the law to alleviate the lot of the Dalits [the oppressed castes, i.e. the former Untouchables].’ ‘But I still don’t understand why the Rajputs did this. What difference does it make to them if you educate the Untouchables?’ ‘The lower castes have always been the slaves of the higher castes,’ replied Tyagi. ‘They work in their fields for low wages, they sweep their streets, clean their clothes. If we educate them, who will do these dirty jobs?’ Dr Tyagi waved his hands at me in sudden exasperation: ‘Don’t you see?’ he said. ‘The Rajputs hate this place because it frees their slaves.’ ‘And what did you do,’ I asked, ‘while the Rajputs were beating the place up?’ Dr Tyagi made a slight gesture with his open palm: ‘I was just sitting,’ he said. ‘What could I do? I was thinking of Gandhiji. He was also beaten up – many times. He said you must welcome such attacks because it is only through confrontation that you can go forward. An institution like ours needs such incidents if it is to regenerate itself. It highlights the injustice the Harijans are facing.’ He paused, and smiled. ‘You yourself would not have come here if this had not happened to us.’ ‘What will you do now?’ I asked. ‘We will start again. The poor of this desert still need us.’ ‘And if the higher castes come for you again?’ ‘Then we will welcome them. They are also victims of their culture.”

    My takeaway was immense pride in the country that India is and a reality-check of the country that it might become. This mixed feeling of gloom and bloom is what Dalrymple gave me through The Age of Kali.

    If you are not really a non-fiction reader and yet you want to read stories of travels, I think Dalrymple is the author you got to check out for. The stories narrated are so vivid and interesting, not once would you feel you are reading non-fiction. Paperback Dalrymple is a good writer. I’ve read some of his other books and thought they were better. Because this book was written in 1988 it is bound to be out of date in some ways. The author is an English journalist who has lived in India and we assume likes it because he keeps going back to the subject.

    In Age of Kali, Dalrymple uses the Hindu idea that evolving epochs demonstrate the health and well being of a time. Kali Yug is the time of strife, instability and degeneration. With that as a theme you would expect the author not to be happy with what he describes in the India of the 1980s. The chapters are actually essays he wrote for different Western newspapers and magazines collected as a book. This is probably why they don’t entirely satisfy. For example, he includes a chapter on the Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean which seems like a travel magazine piece instead of a part of Kali Yug. Most of the rest of the book shows a pretty dismal picture of murderous riots (as far back as the partition in 1947), problems with caste and clashes among religions. He tends to dwell on filth, ignorance and poverty. The writing is well done but maybe heavy handed.

    Dalrymple does admit “yet for all this, India has consistently defied those who make prophecies of doom for her…” Many areas have shown great economic improvement since this was written. As for religious intolerance, political strife and disease, Kali Yug might be seen as rampant in all the world since 1988. Paperback As an Indian in India, I have always read with interest the writings of foreigners about India. The earlier books of Dalrymple appeared to me to be delivering a well researched and authenticated version of his views about aspects of India. More and more I find him cashing in on his established reputation merely to sell his latest volume. A disappointment. Sheer drivel. Somehow this chap's perspective is laced with prejudice and 'trying hard to disguise self righteous undertones'. Paperback 3.5/5 This was my second book by Dalrymple and I was quite impressed by his ability to find stories and narrate them interestingly with great perception and empathy in Nine Lives. While the narration and perception are still good, some of the stories r a bit common-place. Still, a good read especially if u like Dalrymple.
    PS:- It didnt matter to me that the book's stories r from the 90s. The best (and critical) Indian travelogue to me is Naipaul's India - a million mutinies set in 1989. Paperback[return][return]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.[return][return]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, R Paperback

    William Dalrymple has proved himself to be one of the most perceptive and enjoyable travel writers of the 1990s. His first book, In Xanadu, became an instant backpacker's classic, winning a stream of literary prizes. City of Djinns and From the Holy Mountain soon followed, to universal critical praise. Yet it is India that Dalrymple continues to return to in his travels, and his fourth book, The Age of Kali, is his most reflective book to date.

    The result of 10 year's living and traveling throughout the Indian subcontinent, The Age of Kali emerges from Dalrymple's uneasy sense that the region is slipping into the most fearsome of all epochs in ancient Hindu cosmology: the Kali Yug, the Age of Kali, the lowest possible throw, an epoch of strife, corruption, darkness, and disintegration. The brilliance of this book lies in its refusal to reflect any cultural pessimism. Dalrymple's love for the subcontinent, and his feel for its diverse cultural identity, comes across in every page, which makes its chronicles of political corruption, ethnic violence, and social disintegration all the more poignant. The scope of the book is particularly impressive, from the vivid opening chapters portraying the lawless caste violence of Bihar, to interviews with the drug barons on the North-West Frontier, and Dalrymple's extraordinary encounter with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Some of the most fascinating sections of the book are Dalrymple's interviews with Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, which read like nonfiction companion pieces to Salman Rushdie's bitterly satirical Shame. The Age of Kali is a dark, disturbing book that takes the pulse of a continent facing some tough questions. --Jerry Brotton, The Age of Kali: Indian Travels Encounters


    I am a fan of Dalrymple's style of prose. This book, however, disappointed me. Not so much because of the writing style, or the content but because of lack of purpose. There's no theme of the book apart from it being on India and instead appears a collection of essays on India compiled to give an outline of a book.
    William Dalrymple travels across India and tells us about the problems some regions of the country are facing. The in depth analysis of sectarian violence in Bihar and Rajasthan touch the cord. But the essays on Bangalore and Mumbai seem totally out of place. Add to it the fact that the book was published some fifteen years back and the urban Indian landscape has undergone huge transformation in this period.
    The essays on Pakistan and Sri Lanka are good but they are either not relevant today (LTTE in SL) or don't affect an average Indian in any way. Similarly the essay on an island near Mauritius lacked any significance. It's a book that appears as if the writer travelled to a number of places and decided to publish his travelogues as a collection.
    The quality of language used by Dalrymple is as good as always. In an age of Chetan Bhagat, it is pleasantly refreshing to read an author who paints the picture of a landscape with his words.
    This book is not meant for today. While rural India has been more or less stagnant, metropolitan cities have moved on a great deal in the last 15 years. Chapters on Bihar, Rajasthan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are worth reading. Rest of the book can be avoided though. Paperback Two very bad chapters in this book has compelled me to give this a 1 star

    1. In the chapter about Awadh Dalrymple goes on a nostalgia overdose and portrays Awadh as the best kingdom in the entire history of India. The fact is that Awadh was a disaster the rulers were opium addicts and made a mess of the empire which eventually paved the way for the British to overtake. Not even a single word about this in the entire essay, instead too much patronizing. Also Do you realize that the haveli and what not stand to symbolize the oppression the ruling classes imposed?

    2. Dalrymple visits a tense Bangalore during its anti westernization protest and writes a completely biased point of view. What ever the hell 'fear of modernization' means, all the author had to was just spend a little time to find the truth rather than just write his confirmation bias. If he had put even a little bit of effort he would have realized that the issue was exclusion. The new elite having a language barrier discriminating the local vernacular populace. Paperback I have to say I am extremely disappointed. As someone who is considered an expert on India and and everything Indian and is very vocal about the politics in India, I was expecting a balanced and maybe even a true good to be true sort of experiences. But Dalrymple didn't have a single positive thing to say about the country and its people. Every single story has a has been reminiscing about their lost opulent lifestyle, their big palaces, and the powers they enjoyed under the colonial rulers. All cribbing about how they have to now struggle for basic things now that the uncouth Indians have taken over.

    Everyone he meets is a caricature - the dark Hindu tamilian or keralan, the fat brahmins. Only the Sinhalese, the Goan are beautiful and of course fair-skinned.

    The book seems is written from an extremely condescending point of view. It's almost like it's written to make people back home in Britain feel happy that yeah India is destroying itself without our benovelence and without us to keep order. Unfortunately this is the kind of crap that's peddled to Western countries to this day. Paperback This is not the first William Dalrymple book about India that I have read, and I sincerely hope it won't be the last. Like City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters is a fascinating book about the Indian subcontinent, its religions, history, politics -- everything.

    The Age of Kali is a book of essays that takes in several states of northern India, Rajasthan, Bombay, the South, Sri Lanka, Goa, Pakistan, and even the distant Isle of Réunion, technically a part of France.

    Whether he is talking about Benazir Bhutto (he was not impressed), the caste wars between Brahmins and various Harijans, the continuing practice of sati (suttee, or widow burning), gang rape, or the decline of the Old India, he is always interesting. Paperback Writing a great book is not enough. Is that a touch of superiority we hear behind every one of his sentences? Paperback