10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Paperback)
I borrowed this from not having read any of Dalrymple's travel books before, and I really enjoyed it. Dalrymple does what he says he set out to do in this book: he removes himself from the stories. The focus is entirely on the people he meets and on their lives. This is in contrast to a lot of travel writing (including his own earlier books); where, as Dalrymple says, everything is centered on the ever-observing writer himself. That's not to say though that this kind of book isn't good or valuable, for example Jonny Bealby writes very personally about his journeys and how they affect him as an individual, and I loved his books for that very reason. It is though, a fine balance, and one that Bealby masters as he doesn't focus on himself too much, which would reduce the importance of the people he meets. For me, Bealby's own motivations and feelings add a richness to his accounts. We also get to see him through the eyes of those he meets; wonderfully human and engaging interactions that make for great reading. Dalrymple, I feel, lost this very important and interesting aspect of travel; how are we peceived by those we visit? William Dalrymple removes himself, not from the narrative entirely, but from the centre of it all, and all we get are his (to his credit) fair and beautifully described representations of the people. We are rarely told what he actually thinks and feels about the things he sees and hears, although you do get a good idea of where his sympathies and passions lie. This approach, though very logical and pure, somehow left me with a detached and clinical feeling. I don't feel it would have been to the book's detriment if Dalrymple had let more of himself seep into it, quite the contrary in fact. I wondered what these amazing people made of him! Though as he says his admirable intention was "to keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage." This, as opposed to what he feels standard travel writing does: reduce the poeple met to mere background objects. I understand the reasons but his arguably extreme approach makes the book a more cold and anthropological read than it could've been if he'd sensitively shared himself with us as well. Ironically, it made me more eager than I might've been to read his earlier books where he does this more. All in all though, the stories were fascinating and well-told. I learnt a lot about the sub-continent of India and the varied forms of traditional devotion still practised despite the unstoppable modernisation of a nation.