Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

William Dalrymple: The Age of Kali

Having read and loved In Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple, and having received recommendations by friends who say they read ALL of William Dalrymple, I started on this second book, The Age of Kali. I didn’t like it, not one bit. I am proud to say I read it all the way to the end, because often if I don’t like a book, I will say to myself “I don’t need this!” and toss it, but I didn’t, I stuck with it. I am proud because it isn’t easy to stick with a book you don’t like, and I didn’t like this book.


In Xanadu, Dalrymple was wryly funny, hilariously funny, and most of the humor was directed at himself. In The Age of Kali, there is nothing funny.

The Age of Kali is a series of interviews and adventures in India and Pakistan. The author did these interviews and took notes (some are published in slightly different forms as magazine articles) over a period of ten years and then strung them all together to form this book. There is little or no linkage from one to the other. They are grouped geographically.

Here is what I like and admire – this man achieves the most amazing interviews, many times just by asking the right person at the right time. He insinuates himself, asks easy questions, and then sticks in a hard question. He doesn’t seem to flinch from putting himself in danger, and he doesn’t stand on respect when asking his questions. I admire that he went difficult places, interviewed difficult people, and wrote the interviews up without fawning over the celebrity status of his interviewee.

What I don’t like is that he doesn’t seem to like anybody very much. There are no funny anecdotes. By the end of the first interview, I began to get an impression that he doesn’t like India very much (and I believe that is NOT true, as he lives part-time in Delhi) and that India is not a place I want to visit. He interviews corrupt politicians, descendants of the moghuls, Benazir Bhutto – and her mother, Imran Khan (the cricket player) and many others. In each and every interview, he maintains a distance that tells us he doesn’t like these characters very much.

Here are some quotes from early in the book:

These days Bihar was much more famous for its violence, corruption and endemic caste-warfare. Indeed, things were now so bad that the criminals and the politicians of the state were said to be virtually interchangeable: no fewer than thirty-three of Bihar’s State Assembly MLAs had criminal records, and a figure like Dular Chand Yadav, who had a hundred cases of dacoity and fifty murder cases pending against him, could also be addressed as the Honorable Member for Barth.

As he interviews Bihar politician Laloo Prasad Yadav:

I asked Laloo about his childhood. He proved only too willing to talk about it. He lolled back against the side of the plane, his legs stretched over two seats.

‘My father was a small farmer,’ he began, scratching his balls with the unembarrassed thoroughness of a true yokel.

OK, that was funny. I had to read it aloud to AdventureMan. One of the things that still unnerves me living here is that the men are always touching themselves – something so totally forbidden in my culture as to be simply unthinkable.

In his section about Pakistan:

These people – the Pathans – have never been conquered, at least not since the time of Alexander the Great. They have seen off centuries of invaders – Persians, Arabs, Turks, Moghuls, Sikhs, British, Russians – and they retain the mixture of arrogance and suspicion that this history has produced in their character. History has also left them with a curious political status. Although most Pathans are technically within Pakistan, the writ of Pakistan law does not carry in to the heartland of their territories.

These segregated areas are in effect private tribal states, out of the control of the Pakistan government. They are an inheritance from the days of the Raj: the British were quite happy to let the Pathans act as a buffer zone on the edge of the Empire, and they did not try to extend their authority in to the hills. Where the British led, the modern Pakistani authorities have followed. Beyond the checkpoints on the edge of the Peshawar, tribal law – based on the institutions of the tribal council and the blood feud – rules unchallenged and unchanged since its origins long before the birth of Christ.

When I read this, I think of recent headlines about the problems Pakistan is having maintaining order, fighting the status of “failed-nation”, and the chaotic administration of tribal “justice.” The old ways have endured – but as we learned in Three Cups of Tea, there are villages where villagers are eager to have modern schools, eager to educate their daughters, and they, too, are victims of the fanatics who burn the schools and throw acid on women attending school.

The author is told, time and time again by Indian citizens, that India has entered The Age of Kali, “the lowest possible throw, an epoch of strife, corruption, darkness and disintegration.” The book reflects the darkness, corruption and disintegration the author found. I only wish there were some moments of relief, of lightness, hope or humor to encourage the reader on his/her way, but the documentation of this lowest throw was relentless.

April 8, 2009 - Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Law and Order, NonFiction, Pakistan, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Social Issues, Spiritual, Women's Issues |

1 Comment »

  1. […] bookmarks tagged three cups of tea William Dalrymple: The Age of Kali saved by 3 others     Soh85 bookmarked on 04/11/09 | […]

    Pingback by Pages tagged "three cups of tea" | April 11, 2009 | Reply

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