Snapshots of the subcontinent
William Dalrymple’s ‘The Age of Kali’ carries the subtitle ‘Indian Travels and Encounters’ but actually includes writings on Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean island of Reunion (in fact a département of France). It is less a historical analysis in the mold of the brilliant ‘City of Djinns’ but a collection of essays and articles, most of which were previously commissioned and published by magazines and newspapers. Much more jounalistic in style, it is arguably more informal than some of his other books, but no less engaging or informative for that. His obvious love for the sub-continent is reflected in a gently ironic voice that somehow makes light work of the tales of atrocity, corruption and ineptitude here. He is not as pessimistic or misanthropic as Paul Theroux, and is able to imbue his descriptions of even the most hopeless situations with a comic absurdity. Although the content of the book is highly contemporaneous – the pace of development in India and the shifting political landscape post-911 makes parts of the book seem a little dated – the book gives a comprehensive overview of the forces at work on the subcontinent.
Whereas ‘City of Djinns’ and his later work ‘White Mughals’ were heavy on historical narratives and anecdotes, ‘The Age of Kali’ finds the author a more visible presence. Like in his stunning debut ‘In Xanadu’, the book leaves you impressed by his bravery in pursuit of his subject. From accessing the base camps of the Tamil Tigers to travelling the lawless mountain routes of Northern Pakistan, Dalrymple builds a vivid and remarkable picture of the region seldom exposed by journalists of any nationality, and often with considerable personal risk. Although the book has no unifying objective, the articles included build an informative overview without any prescriptive remit. If you enjoy this – which you should – you should read the aforementioned titles in the author’s back catalogue. If you want to complement it with some fiction, try Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ or ‘Family Matters’.