Monday, April 12, 2010

Dalrymple's Nine Lives (again)

You can't fault William Dalrymple's interweaving of exposition, narration, and description. Consider how fluently he provides back story, information about local custom, and a sense of place in the following extract:

I had known Mohan and Batasi for about five years when I set off with them that morning from Jaipur. We had just done an event about the Pabuji epic to a conference, and were now heading in the direction of their village of Pabusar, which lay deep in the desert towards Bikaner.

Soon after I had first met the couple, in 2004, I wrote a long New Yorker article on Mohan, and after the piece was published, Mohan and I performed together at various festivals; but in all the time I had known and worked with him, I had never yet visited his home. Pabusar, he told me, was a small oasis of green in the dry desert, and was named after the hero of his epic; indeed the village supply of sweet water was believed to have appeared thanks to Pabuji's miraculous intervention. Now it was the tenth day of the full moon, the day of Pabu, when his power was at its height and he was unable to refuse and devotee. This time the epic was to be recited not in part but in full, at my request, and I was looking forward to seeing Mohan perform it.

On the lonely, potholed single-track road to Pabusar, the last leg of the journey, we began to meet other pilgrims who were coming to celebrate the modest village festivities which marked the day of Pabu. Some of the pilgrims were on foot: lonely figures trudging through the immensity of the desert in the white midnight. Other villagers rode together in tractors, pulling trailers full of women in deep-blue saris. Occasionally, we would pass through a village sheltering in the lee of a crumbling high-walled fortress, where we would see other pilgrims taking their rest in the shade of the wells that lay beside the temples. As we drove on, the settlements grew poorer and the road increasingly overrun with drifting sand. The fields of dew-watered millet grew rarer and more arid; and the camel thorn closed in. Dry weeds heeled and twisted in the desert wind.

Source: William Dalrymple, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. 80-81.