This review appears today in The Washington Post.
It’s most unusual to see geography as primarily a construct of the human imagination, but that is precisely what the scholar of Hinduism Diana Eck attempts in her massive new book, India: A Sacred Geography. Thousands of years before India was a nation-state (1947), a colony of Britain (the 18th century), or a cartographic vision on a map (1782), it was, in Eck’s view, conceived as a geographical unit in the hearts and minds of the faithful, and particularly in the religious imagination of Hinduism.
Pilgrims thought of India as the land of the seven great rivers, as a space marked by the benediction and caprice of the gods who resided in the great northern peaks of the Himalayas, as woven into unity by the great centers of pilgrimage, or dhams, in the north, south, east and west. Seeking the marks and manifestations of the sacred, they fashioned with their footprints a map of a vast subcontinent suffused with the presence of the gods and stories of their appearances in different incarnations.
Eck’s perspective has significant political implications. It arguably refutes the widely held notion that India was merely a confusion of diverse kingdoms, cultures and languages until it was politically integrated by the British Empire. Some scholars hold that the idea of Hinduism, too, is the modern tracing of a circle around a diversity of ancient religious beliefs never self-consciously systematized into a whole. This idea struggles to hold up against the layered evidence supplied by Eck’s book, the synthesis of three decades of work on the myths, rituals, cosmology and everyday life of Hinduism.
But the appeal of the book lies in the fact that its emphasis is not political, but aggregative and connective, making a forest out of a mass of trees. Eck offers an exceptionally rich account of how, throughout India, the cosmic is mapped onto the local in a tradition formed, revised and renewed over the centuries by thousands of discrete phenomena and often anonymous actors.
This map of myth, as it were, radiates a worldview very different from the assumptions of modern cartography. Cartography invests each place on a map with a name and an unassailable specificity. But sacral maps, Eck notes, are marked continuously by “patterns of duplication and condensation,” demonstrating an ability “to see a world in a grain of sand,” in William Blake’s unforgettable formulation. For instance, thousands of rivers and water bodies across the country are said to be linked to or fed by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganga. The Ganga is, depending on what lens one brings to it, both somewhere and everywhere.
“As arcane as lingas of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.”
She devotes entire chapters to regional variations in the worship of the great generative god Shiva, the creator of the universe, or the myth of the Mother Goddess, who is consecrated and remembered in thousands of local incarnations as “the goddesses of earth and village, glade and river, hilltop and mountaintop.” In doing so Eck demonstrates how, just as novels are fully realized only in the minds of their readers, gods are made present in the world by the stories and footsteps of the faithful.
The two main currents of contemporary nonfiction about India might be said to be a broadbrush view animated by strong particulars (such as Patrick French’s recent India: A Portrait) and an attempt to fully realize a fascinating local world (such as two recent books about discrete realms in the megalopolis of Mumbai, Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing). Eck’s book might be said to stand at the sangam, or junction (a site of great religious power in Hinduism), of these currents.
Its ideas reverberate forcefully, too, against other recent works about geography as informed by the human imagination, such as Rebecca Solnit’s book about San Francisco, Infinite City, or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France. (Robb and Eck also resemble each other in never writing an uninteresting or flat sentence.) All these writers would be fundamentally in agreement with Eck’s assertion that “every story has a place and every place a story.”
Eck’s book is so dense with detail that one might think of its 500 pages as a distillation of a world. In Akash Kapur’s India Becoming,” on the other hand, an idea that might be written up in a few sentences is stretched out, through the conceit of an autobiographical narrative, into an entire book.
In 2003 Kapur returns, after many years in America, to India, the country of his childhood, and finds the sleepy, unmoving world of old dramatically refashioned by new energies — especially the energies of capital — and ambitions. Fascinated by “that sense of newness, of perpetual reinvention and forward momentum that I had felt when I first moved to America,” Kapur beds down in Auroville, a small south Indian town, to take stock of this dramatic historical moment.
He explores the new India through a variety of conversations with, among others, a landlord who sees the old feudal world falling away around him, a young gay man riding the wave of the IT revolution and an activist in Mumbai fighting for the rights of those who have been marginalized or dispossessed by ruthlessness of the new economy. The Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis slowly emerges from his narration, but only as cliche, reverse cliche and all-encompassing cliche.
Dazzled in the beginning by the rumbling of a society of a billion people (“India, I felt, had started to dream”), Kapur soon begins to feel disillusionment with the spectacle of rising crime, pollution and poverty, and a “culture of not caring.” Finally he decides that he has been too hasty in both his elation and his despair, and settles for the comfort of realizing that “the central fact . . . of modern India was change” and the mystification “ineluctably, if at times haltingly, a new world was rising.”
If this were a novel, one might surmise that the writer was deliberately setting the narrator up as a naif. Anyone who reads it as straight-up reportage, though, will probably find the banality and contrivance of this self-indulgent “journey” exasperating. It is not just that Kapur does not take any strong positions (“I welcomed the progress. But all the destruction seemed a heavy price to pay”). What is worse is that his language groans with superfluity (“It was evening, a time between night and day, and the lights of the city were starting to come on”) and lazy allusion (“India, the author Nirad Chaudhuri reportedly once wrote, is a nation of a million exceptions”).
If Eck’s book reveals the relevance of the local, the unfamiliar and the seemingly obscure to the deep structure of a civilization, Kapur’s proves conversely the great gulf between taking up a relevant subject and writing a relevant book.