Nine Lives by William Dalrymple–A Review

Buy Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India by William Dalrymple is an account of the lives of nine apparently ordinary persons of extraordinary religious persuasion. It is a  fascinating book–part travelogue, part spiritual quest–which gives the reader a peek into the multitude of religious traditions that abound in every nook and corner of India.

I usually steer clear of books that have to do with religion because they are generally too abstract and philosophical for me to make head or tail out of them. I decided to try this one primarily because it’s written by Dalrymple, whose magnum opus ‘The Last Mughal’ was as immensely enjoyable as it was scholarly. I was, of course, not disappointed.

As with ‘The Last Mughal’, one comes away impressed with Dalrymple’s insight and the meticulous research that went into the writing. Dalrymple travels across the length and breadth of the country following leads, meets up with his subjects, observes them and finally gets them to narrate their own life-stories .

And such mesmerizing stories! As a blurb on the jacket said, each story could be made into a full length motion picture in it’s own right.

Take the story of the Jain nun, for instance. Born in 1972 into a wealthy merchant family in Raipur, she had loving parents and a happy childhood. However, much to her family’s dismay, she found herself drawn to asceticism at the tender age of fourteen. Adamant in the face of her family’s tearful opposition, she went on to take the vows of a Jain nun, which required her to pluck out every strand of hair on her head by their roots, to wear only white unstitched  robes, to eat only once a day and then only whatever was received as alms, to not touch or make use of money, to continuously wander the roads of the country barefooted and not stay at any one place for more than seven days to avoid developing any attachments.

However, all these strictures do not ultimately prevent her from becoming inordinately attached to a fellow nun, so much so that she loses the will to live on when her friend dies after undertaking a ritual fast unto death, which apparently is what all Jain ascetics aspire to undertake one day. She tells us that she was already well along her own suicidal fast unto death ( a very gradual process lasting many years), partly because it is her duty as a nun, partly because she so misses her friend and partly, ironically, in atonement for becoming so attached to another human!

Other stories include that of a devadasi (temple prostitute) dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma, patron deity of devadasis, by her very poor parents– and a bronze idol-maker of Tamil-Nadu, for whom his work is quite literally the most exalted form of worship.

And then there is this low-caste Theyyam dancer in Kerala who is a well-digger and part-time prison warden for ten months a year but personifies God himself for the remaining two months as he dances the Theyyam. For those two months, Brahmins who keep him at an arm’s distance at other times , fall at his feet and ask for his blessings.

An illiterate singer of  sacred oral epics, hailing from the deserts of Rajasthan, knows 1,00,000-verses-long epics by heart. There is no written account of these epics anywhere and this is in all probability the only surviving instance in the whole world of an epic living on through the oral tradition alone . Research actually suggests that literacy interferes with the ability to remember such vast amounts of verse. The case of East European oral epics, which were lost at the turn of the Twentieth century as literacy became more and more widespread, appears to bear this out. Literacy or no literacy though, days of the oral epic are probably numbered even here– who’ll have the patience to learn such monumental blocks of verses in the age of DVDs!

Dalrymple also goes across the border to Sindh in Pakistan to meet with Lal Pari Mastani–the ecstatic red fairy–a follower of Sufi Islam who is held in high esteem by the sizeable Sufi population in the region.Lal Pari turns out to be a Bihari Muslim immigrant who came to Pakistan from the newly formed Bangladesh in 1971. She found solace in the cult of Sufism after being wrecked emotionally by a chain of events.

The tale I found the most moving personally was that of the Tibetan monk who gave up his  vows to be able to fight the Chinese who had invaded his homeland. He crossed over to India where he and other Tibetans were taught Guerrilla warfare in the aftermath of the Indo-China war. This Tibetan unit was incorporated into the Indian Army but of course they never got to fight against the Chinese. Instead they were made to fight against Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. The monk recalls having to shoot at soldiers he had nothing against, even at soldiers running away  for their lives.The tragedy of a deeply religious young monk having to renounce his pledge of non-violence to defend his faith is exceeded only by the tragedy of him having to kill people he had nothing against. Upon being finally discharged by the Indian Army, he took the first bus to Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, where with the Dalai Lama’s blessings, he once again donned the robes of a monk. Well into his seventies, today he spends his days making prayer flags in atonement of his sins.

No Western observer of Indian religions can do without presenting in loving detail an account of the Tantric cults of Hinduism practiced in pockets of East India, and Dalrymple is no exception here. It is probably it’s primitiveness which makes Tantric Hinduism so irresistible to the Western eye. Be that as it may, there is a rather eerie story of a ‘jogin’ who lives in the cremation ground in Tarapeeth( West Bengal), one of the biggest centres of Tantric learning.Yet another story relates to the Baul singers of Bengal, who have Tantric leanings too.

Reading the book, one wonders just what it is about the Indian soil, air and water that makes India such a breeding ground for religions and religious traditions–such mind-boggling diversity! Skilled writer that he is, Dalrymple gives evocative descriptions of the contrasting landscapes that greet him as he criss-crosses the country to meet his subjects. And by letting his subjects do most of the talking, he manages to never come across as judgemental–no mean feat for a book like this!

PS–There was something unintentionally funny in the grim story of the devadasi.The devadasi Rani was recounting her tale to Dalrymple, and said in all seriousness–“My first customer was a very fat man. Fatter even than you.” Ouch!!

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18 Responses to Nine Lives by William Dalrymple–A Review

  1. R's Mom says:

    Wow..this sounds pretty interesting…I should get this book..thanks for the reco 🙂 Now a days, I am surprisingly getting good reviews about short stories and reading them as well!

    • Yes, I remember you saying in one of your posts that you preferred novels to short stories but were reading a lot of short stories of late 🙂
      The book is certainly worth a read.

  2. Jas says:

    I do not usually read such books but the stories you mentioned here somehow strike a chord… and I loved the PS 😀

  3. G Vishwanath says:

    My son had recommended this book to me and I read it last year and enjoyed it tremendously.
    It now adorns my bookshelf. Some day I hope to read it again.
    Reading your detailed review enable me to recall the pleasurable moments I had experienced while reading this book.

    • Wonderful to know that you have read the book and liked it too 🙂
      Actually I was thinking of your son while writing this. Wish I could write reviews half as elegantly as he does 🙂

  4. Writerzblock says:

    You know, I started reading this but never managed to finish the book. I’ll have to find time to read this. Looks like slightly heavy reading, but worth the time and effort.

    • Yes, i guess it is kind of heavy so you’ll have to persevere–the book began to grow on me only after the first hundred pages or so but I gradually got quite drawn into it .

  5. Beautiful review…one more added to my list 🙂

  6. Fem says:

    Ahem! Guess who had the good fortune to meet Dalrymple? That’s right! Moi! 😀

    I got a book signed by him, and there was this really great reading session. I have always been a fan, and I enjoyed meeting him so much! This book is one I do not yet own, but after your review, I’ll go and get it!

  7. You met him? Wow!! I sure am jealous! When and where?

  8. Scribby says:

    I think I’m going to read this 🙂

  9. meenamenon says:

    Came here via som blog-hopping! I hv seen this book bein flashed quite often, but somthing prevented me from picking it up.. Ifor some absurd reason thot it will be a lotta spiritual gyaan. But today after reading this review cant wait to read it all up! Woosh!

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