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Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple
“Before you drink from a skull, you must first find the right corpse,” Manisha Ma Bhairavi says even as her dreadlocked partner, Tapan Sadhu sitting at the back of the hut with a radio attached to his ear shouts excitedly, “England is 270. for four!” This is the Indian British author William Dalrymple writes about in his latest book, Nine Lives. This is India, where mysticism coexists with modernity, where even the fallen are worshiped, the outcasts form communities and where even a sadhu can be an MBA!
In his “first book in a decade” author-historian-journalist Dalrymple unravels the many paradoxes that make up the very fluid fabric of Indian society. With the help of nine lives, he taps into the soul of the nation.
Nine Lives is a collection of connected non-fiction short stories, where each life represents a different form of devotion, or a different religious path. A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends years trying to atone for the violence by handprinting prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend starve to death. A middle-class woman leaves her family to live as a tantric in a remote cremation ground. A warden in Kerala becomes, for two months a year, a temple dancer and is worshiped as an incarnate deity. An idol maker from Tamil Nadu, the twenty-third in a long hereditary chain stretching back to the great bronze molders of the Chola Empire, worries whether the next generation will take up this art “in the age of computers”. A triple refugee from Bihar finds her place as the Red Fairy in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan even as the threat of Islamic fundamentalism looms over. Devdasi initially resists her initiation into sex work, yet pushes her daughter into a business she now regards as a holy calling.
Dalrymple’s journey takes him from Sravanabelagola in Karnataka to the deserts of Rajasthan to the temples of Tanjore and Kerala and madrasas of Sindh before culminating in the lakeside rural villages of West Bengal. He documents the oral histories of not only those nine lives but even of the sects and religions to which they belong, some going back to the time of the Rig Veda.
Each life serves “as a keyhole into the way that a specific religious vocation was captured and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during that rapid period of transition, revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a rapidly changing landscape.” Yet, despite all the development that India boasts, Dalrymple finds her holy men and women debating and agonizing over “the same eternal dilemmas that absorbed the holy men of classical India thousands of years ago” – the pursuit of material wealth versus the claims. of the spirit, personal devotion versus conventional religion, textual orthodoxy versus the emotional appeal of mysticism and the ancient war of duty and desire.
That Dalrymple is an accomplished writer is a fact. But it is remarkable journalism that makes this book a must-read. He steps aside and let the people be the focus of the story. He brings himself as the only thread that holds the stories together. The author did well to add a glossary and a note about the origin of the font (Linotype Stempel Garamond) used in the book.
Nine Lives is not just another travel book. It is a window to contemporary India – one that remains forgotten or hidden, but is very much there on the road, quite literally. As Dalrymple puts it, “The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows. It is as fluid and unpredictable in its moods as it ever was, but it meanders within familiar banks.”
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