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

Indian Drivers the Worst

When it came time to get a driver’s license, it wasn’t important to me. I was living in a place with great public transportation. When I finally decided to learn to drive, I took driving lessons. My best friend, still my friend to this very day, would take me out driving. One time my car stalled in the middle of a crowded intersection, the light changed, and I was almost out of my mind with panic.

My friend calmly said “You’re doing just fine. Take a breath. You have time. Start the car, and complete the turn.” She didn’t sound worried at all – only later did I discover how terrified she was. She held it together. I will owe her to the end of my life for her loyalty to me and for her patience with me.

This is from the Arab Times. My mistake – I thought Kuwait was the deadliest spot on earth to drive. Not so – the Indians take that cake:

Good luck needed as Indians drive themselves to death

MUMBAI, Oct 23, 2008 (AFP) – The Good Luck Motor Training School in Mumbai is aptly named, according to its owner, Sohail ‘Raja’ Kappadia, who says luck is exactly what you need to drive on India’s roads.

Kappadia knows it only too well: a friend recently became another of the country’s shocking fatal road accident statistics, while one of his pupils has just rammed into the back of another car during a lesson.

‘Sometimes you just don’t know if the guy in front is going to brake,’ he told AFP with a shrug. ‘Presence of mind is a must here. Most of the accidents in Mumbai are due to rash negligence.’

India has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest place in the world to drive.

The country has 10 percent of the estimated 1.2 million road deaths worldwide, according to the International Road Federation in Geneva.

Mortality rates on Indian roads are 14 per 10,000 vehicles, compared to less than two per 10,000 in developed countries, the World Bank has said.

And by the end of the next decade, the organisation predicted that road deaths will overtake those from deadly diseases and most of the fatalities will be pedestrians.

It is not difficult to see why.

Drivers here run the gauntlet of speeding taxis, weaving auto-rickshaws, trucks and buses as well as hand-carts and cows on congested, pot-holed roads, some of which have remained largely unchanged since the end of the colonial era more than 60 years ago.

At the same time they have to be on their guard against stray dogs and jaywalking pedestrians, forced into the road by the clutter of street vendors, crumbling pavements or crossings.

Meanwhile laws governing the wearing of seatbelts and a ban on using mobile phones at the wheel are frequently flouted, indicators are seldom used and at night drivers often fail to switch on their headlights.

Motorcyclists riding without helmets with pillion passengers perched behind are a common sight.

For a learner driver, Shahik Arqam looks unfazed by such experiences.

‘It’s a little bit difficult but I know how other drivers work,’ the 24-year-old architect said.

During an hour-long lesson in a battered right-hand drive Hyundai Santro, Arqam has had to be alert.

Other drivers made no allowance for the red L-plates and warning triangle displayed prominently on the car.

Instead he was treated like any other road user and blasted by a chorus of car horns for driving too slowly, failing to pull away quickly enough from traffic lights or for stalling.

Filtering vehicles from the left failed to give way as he headed down the main road to Churchgate railway station, and he had to hold his nerve as cars swerved in and out of lanes in the tussle for pole position.

Mohsin Ali, an instructor for 12 years, takes Mumbai’s chaotic roads in his stride, gently issuing either verbal instructions or hand signals to his pupil as the car picked its way through the heavy mid-afternoon traffic.

‘If you follow the traffic rules then it’s very easy,’ the 39-year-old said afterwards. ‘Compared to Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai) the traffic is better here.’

To be sure, the Mumbai authorities have been trying to make the roads safer.

Roadsigns reminding drivers to belt up, only use the horn when necessary — rather than in constant cacophony, as encouraged by the ‘horn please’ request painted on the rear of many vehicles — and not use their mobile phones have appeared across the city.

Signs also remind motorcyclists to wear helmets and there has been a crackdown on drink-driving.

Some 632 people died in what the Indian media calls road traffic ‘mishaps’ in Mumbai in 2007, but by the end of August that had fallen to 377, according to police figures.

Kappadia agrees that better driver training is a must if safety is to be improved on India’s roads, particularly as private car ownership increases on the back of the country’s strong economic growth.

The 33-year-old said he would ban heavy goods vehicles from cities during the day, toughen sentences for drink-drivers, improve road infrastructure and spread the message that speed kills, especially among the young.

Some welcome measures have been taken, such as raising entry standards and lowering age limits for truck drivers, but more needs to be done, he said.

In the meantime, the Indian driving mantra of ‘good brakes, good horn, good luck’ will have to do.

October 25, 2008 Posted by | Character, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Friends & Friendship, Health Issues, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Relationships, Social Issues | | 15 Comments