The Age of Kali

William Dalrymple

Read November-December 2006

There is an inherent contradiction to the notion of Hindu fundamentalism. Indeed, it is most apparent when studying the Hindu strain of that disease that, despite its cloak, fundamentalism is essentially about power and control and has very little to do with religion itself.

The Age of Kali is a kind of end-time in the Hindu cosmology, a stage when the world's imperfections become so overwhelming that the cycle needs to begin afresh. It is a common refrain for Indians of all stripes to claim that we live in such an age (and compared to the idyllic worlds presented in the classical texts, who could argue?). More recently, it has become a political weapon of Indian conservatives of a certain, saffron, stripe to advance this as an argument for their ascent to power. And this is what we witnessed in the 1990s.

Dalrymple, an erudite Indophile Scotsman who lived for many years in India, gives us this compilation of essays of this turbulent time. It is a volume of mixed quality in many ways. Its biggest flaw—though one can hardly blame the author for this—is that people will view it as a summary of India presented through snapshots, but in fact it is an India of very specific places and even more specific times. Like most secular observers of India, Dalrymple felt a panic and tension at the rise of the Hindutva movement, and he chronicled its excesses—and some other social ills, in parallel—in detail. (One could argue that the true Age of Kali was the ascent of the saffron army in the first place.) But that movement may well have peaked, and India's problems have moved on to far more pressing, significant, and interesting ones. What the volume lacks is a broader sweep that would help a person better understand India as a whole.

A related problem is that the India of Dalrymple is so...depressing. I suppose I am guilty of an element of jingoism, and triteness, to ask, could he not find a positive story anywhere? Again, that he did not (or, one hopes, chose not to) is not to criticise him particularly, but rather just to point out that this book fails to serve as an introduction to the modern India. Perhaps the real problem is that Dalrymple is much stronger on politics and history than on economics, so he fails to take in the enormous economic experiment that is India today.

The other major flaw is the style of many of the essays, which are a combination of interview and reporting. Sometimes he is a mere chronicler of what others did and said, and often these words and actions are chilling enough to need no further comment. But sometimes he does interject his own feelings into his conversations, which would be welcome if he were to push things further than he did, rather than ask a provocative question and simply reproduce the cliched answer verbatim with no further examination. He's too smart a writer to not recognize the cliches, so what's the point leaving things there?

Curiously, for a writer with such a strong understanding of India, Dalrymple really comes into his own in the fifth and sixth parts of the book: On the Indian Ocean and Pakistan. Here he engages less in reporting and more in travel writing, and his talent shines powerfully. These essays alone are worth the price of admission.