William Dalrymple in the Guardian:
...Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century," I wrote in my diary that night. "Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street."
This sort of disjuncture is something I have become used to in the course of working on my first travel book for 15 years, which looks at how India's diverse religious and mystical traditions have been caught in the vortex of rapid change that has recently engulfed South Asia. Last November, for example, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who went on to write a scholarly essay on Tapan's practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded rich material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the various cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess.
The light was beginning to fade; a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan and I talked of tantra, and he confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now successful ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did, in case rumours of the family dabbling in black magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the States.
Living in India over the past few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s...