Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Format: Hardback, 304 pages, 234x153mm
Published: October 2009
Bloomsbury UK

"Nine Lives" is a collection of short esoteric stories by eminent travel writer William Dalrymple that explores how India's religious traditions are being affected by modernity. As a result, it is not about the Sai Babas, the Maharishis or the sants from the mainstream religions of India, or even about modern TV God Men like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar from the global spirituality empire called the "Art of Living", but about the tantriks and the sufis, godmen and saints from the fringes of religion and various cults or even the little village devis and devatas...for it is these people and their traditions which face a threat from modernization.

This wonderful book opens with "The Nun's Tale", a sensitive portrayal of a Jain nun....of why and how she became a nun, the rigors involved in living as a nun (or a monk) and some very interesting revelations on some of the practices of Jain nuns and monks that I was not aware of.  Prasannamataji, the nun in question, is young, educated and attractive.  She comes from a wealthy family but gives it all up for a life of asceticism. Jainism attaches supreme importance to "detachment" and every Jain, man or woman, but especially nun and monk, aspires to become completely detached from  life.  Unfortunately for  Prasannamataji she develops a keen affection for a fellow nun. Her friend falls sick and eventually dies (Jains are not allowed to seek allopathic treatment), and Prassanamataji ends up not just breaking a rule and falling in love (for lack of a better term), but also mourning the loss of her beloved and wanting to take her own life. Incidentally, the practice of fasting unto death "sallekhana" is widely embraced in Jainism.  Unlike with Buddhism, there is not a whole lot out there that describes for us the lives of Jain aesethics and I sincerely believe Dalrymple has opened the doors to many aspects of Jain living that were hitherto unknown. Fascinating...this first tale left me breathless, quite literally!

"The Dancer of Kannur", takes a peak into the lives of Theyyam dancers ( divinely possessed dancers) in Kerala. What is so fascinating about the account is that Theyyam dancers, being Dalits (untouchables) , are usually reviled by Brahmins on a regular basis and yet, when the Theyyam season comes around the Brahmins are prepared to touch the feet of the Dalit whom they believe is now possessed by a God. So also, in "The Daughters of Yellamma" we have the devadasis (women who are dedicated to a temple as children) but who are inevitably cast off after attaining puberty. Not a whole lot of options are open to them at this point except to prostitute themselves. Devadasis are supposed to be the incarnation of the goddess Yellama and such is the draw of Indians to religion that even though most of them (the davadasis) now come from the "untouchable" caste and most are prostitutes, Hindu families will seek their blessings on auspicious occasions like a wedding, the birth of a child and so on.

One of my favourite stories in the collection has to do with a Buddhist monk from Tibet who was temporarily released from his vows of non-violence to take up arms in defence of the Dalai Lama whom he then accompanied in his flight from Tibet to Dharamshala in India in the 1950's. He then spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence by hand printing the finest prayer flags in India.   I thought I knew everything there is to know about Tibetan Buddhism but I was so wrong...I had no clue they were able to take up a call to arms if their religion demanded it!

Another notable story is "The Idol Maker", Srijet is the thirty-fifth of a line of sculptors going back to the Chola bronze makers who sees creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India, but unfortunately the line may just end with Srijet as his son has no intention of becoming a sculptor like his dad, instead, he has plans to study computer engineering.

And my review would not be complete if I did not mention,  Manisha whose astonishing journey from a middle-class life in Calcutta  to unexpected fulfillment living as a Tantric in an isolated, skull-filled cremation ground is told in a story with the beguiling title, "The Lady Twilight".

Whilst reading these fascinating stories, I was once again reminded just how very diverse India is. From these nine lives you realize there is a variety of Indias but that they are all seamlessly and beautifully connected. You also realize, albeit a little sadly, that ancient religious traditions are dying out as India marches towards global dominance.  I am very grateful to Dalrymple for providing us a keyhole into the lives of these people who, if the current trend continues, might not be around too much longer.

"Nine Lives", unlike most travelogues which tend to focus on the author and what "he" is doing, focuses exclusively on these nine subjects,their lives and spiritual quests. Dalrymple has successfully managed to place himself in the background. The interest and the inquiring mind is very much there, but he is skillfully unobtrusive, allowing his subjects to tell their story in their own words.  It is precisely that quality which makes this book such an enjoyable and unforgettable read.

Note:  William Dalrymple is going on tour with the "real life" characters of his latest book. This is truly a unique way of showcasing the India Dalrymple's come to discover over the past twenty-five years.  If you can catch a reading, I'm sure it will be money and effort well spent!


Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, I am quite simply blown away both by this wonderful book and the amazing way that you presented it to us. As always amazing. How do you do it?
Truly the author must be saluted for this wonderful look at the myriad cultures, religious practices of India.
As you rightly said these smaller aspects of the culture already at the margins are under the most threat.
I found each of the stories from your review wonderful. My favorite is the mystic from the graveyard.
Would love to read this one.
Did you come across any kind of an explanation by the author for taking some of the folks from nine lives along with him for his book tour?
Isn't there a chance that they are a bit of a curiosity, isn't there a risk of their being on display? Perhaps not so much for the Tibetan monk who is also an artist for what he does. Maybe I am wrong, was just curious.
Simply loved your review, thank you for sharing!

Satpreet said...

Super Blog!

Leela Soma said...

Great review Angie.Love the way you have highlighted each story and given the gist. I had been put off reading the book by Radio 4's blurbs that hyped all the bizarre and sensational stories in the book but the way you've described it makes me recosider my decision. The fascination for the Western writers to either wallow in the Raj elements or with the freakish bits in fringes of Indian society irks me so I had given this a body swerve but as you say these different 'Indias exist and are seemlessly connected' but may soon disappear. I guess the main thing that grabs me is the strange actions of rational, educated people who give up everything to find out 'Why we exist?' The question that has been asked and pondered on since man achieved Consciouness I guess.

s.H.a.S.h.I said...

hmm.. nice review... though ive not read it.. i'l take a look..
btw nice blog..

Booksnyc said...

This sounds excellent - I heard briefly about the book on NPR but your review has really convinced me to read it! I see that the author is at the Met in NYC today doing a reading/signing. I am trying to see if I can rearrange my afternoon to make it over there . . .

Priya Iyer said...

I've picked up this one recently. It's too early to say, but it looks really good; something that I'd enjoy.

Thanks for the great review!! Really makes me look forward to finishing the book :)

Susan A said...

Angie, sounds very nice at a long glance. Will return again in a few days to comment properly. xxx sue

Happy Reader said...

Great review, Angie! Looks like there is so much to learn from this book. Lately, I have been enjoying books on Tibetan Buddhism and the ones by HH Dalai Lama. I am sure I will enjoy this book! Thank you for the review.

Lotus Reads said...

Everyone! I am so,so grateful for your visits, but I feel so bad I haven't been able to respond to you individually. It's summertime in the city, my kids are home, the pools are open and the wide expanse of Canada's beautiful natural land calls out to us everyday...as a result, I spend so little time at the pc. I hope to be able to resume normal blogging and reviewing after the summer, so please stay tuned.

Thank you!

Susan A said...

Believe me, I understand only too well, Angie. :-)) And you forgot the football, no?? xx

Lotus Reads said...

hahahahha, deliberately Suse, it's bad enough that everyone on FB thinks I'm a soccer addict, didn't want my blog readers to know the awful truth as well! ;-))))))

A_N_Nanda said...

Darlymple is a writer of a lot of erudition. I've read one of his books, "The Last Mughal" and liked it. I even made a review of the book at

Your review definitely creates interest in me for this book, "The Nine Lives".


Mystica said...

I've read and reviewed this book a while ago and whilst reading it (and with all his other books as well) am amazed at the knowledge, the passion and the emotion that he brings to his books on India. Thanks for a wonderful review.

Sai said...

Oohh this sounds like a great book. You know the plight of the Yellama devdasis is rather tragic. In fact I remember there was film on them with Shabana Azmi way back in the 80s. That movie made such an impact on me then.

By the way I am currently reading "Empires of the Indus: From Tibet to Pakistan - The Story of a River," which is a travelogue and historic account where the author follows the course of Indus river. I will get to Nine lives after I finish reading this book.

40adventures said...

Great review, thanks. Now I have a new book to add to my reading list.

iamyuva said...

thanks for this. I picked the book based on your review. it was good read.