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The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters
William Dalrymple

The Age of Kali
William Dalrymple
London 1998

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First published while the author was living in Delhi conducting research for City of Djinns, his homage to the Moghul empire, these essays record the dramatic and often violent changes that have taken place on the Indian subcontinent within the past decade. Dalrymple succeeds in presenting the many disparate parts of Indian society as a whole, from the glitterati of Bombay’s movie scene (otherwise known as "Bollywood") to the dispossessed women of Vrindavan who roam the streets begging alms. Politically and culturally, India exists in a state of anarchy. In addition to the conflicts between Hindu and Muslim factions that continue to escalate in number and intensity, there are the blood feuds and political turf wars waged in Bihari, which, like Lahore and parts of Uttar Pradesh, has succumbed to the rule of drug lords and corrupt government officials. In modern India, muscle wins elections–not social programs.

Hindu cosmology divides time into four great epochs, or yugs, which represent the movement from perfection toward moral and social disintegration. Many Indians today believe that they live in the Kali Yug, or Age of Kali, a period of rapidly advancing darkness marked by chaos, corruption, and decay. Not until the world is cleansed by fire will the cycle repeat itself, restoring balance. "In the Age of Kali," writes Dalrymple, "the great gods Vishnu and Shiva are asleep and do not hear the prayers of their devotees. In such an age, normal conventions fall apart: anything is possible." Despite being at the vanguard of the computer software industry and having recently joined the ranks of world superpowers with the successful test of an atomic bomb–an ominous development when one considers the state of relations with neighboring Pakistan–India remains a country firmly entrenched in the past. In much the same way that the Luddites rebelled against the first wave of industrialization, so too have many Indians, especially the more conservative followers of the Hindu religion, resorted to violence to express their dissatisfaction with encroaching Western influence. Xenophobia and intense nationalism maintain in defiance of the fast food restaurants, beauty pageants, and satellite TV stations that threaten traditional Indian values.

As Dalrymple observes throughout the book, the caste system has proven especially resilient to change. Though abolished at independence more than fifty years ago, it continues to control the lives of the Indian people, particularly in rural areas where riots have broken out in protest at the advantages, such as receiving a formal education, that have been extended to the lower castes. So uncompromising are the mores of village communities that a young widow will defy law and practice the ancient rite of sati–the act of immolating herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre–rather than bring dishonor to her family.

Whether interviewing a member of the lowly potter caste or a popular novelist attending a lavish "drinks party," Dalrymple, like the renowned filmmaker Errol Morris, elicits from his subject details that resonate with the moral and religious imperatives that dictate so much public interaction, and thus furthers our understanding of India’s enigmatic social structure. Because he writes from the vantage of one who has had to contend with the problems confronting India in recent years, Dalrymple instinctively comprehends the complex relationship between politics and religion that has left this country divided and at the brink of war.

Beautifully illustrated by Olivia Fraser, The Age of Kali offers a compassionate view of a nation struggling against forces both modern and ancient. William Dalrymple has written a book that is required reading for anyone interested in India’s emerging role in world affairs.

Reviewed by David Remy


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