“Before you drink from a skull, your 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 clamped to his ear shouts excitedly, “England are 270 for four!” This is the India British author William Dalrymple writes about in his latest book, Nine Lives. This is the India where mysticism cohabits with modernity, where even the fallen are worshipped, the outcasts form communities and where even a sadhu can be a MBA!
In his ‘first book after 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 linked non-fiction short stories, with each life representing 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 hand-printing 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 prison warden in Kerala becomes, for two months a year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as an incarnate deity. An idol-maker from Tamil Nadu, the twenty-third in a long hereditary chain stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola Empire, worries if the next generation will take on 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 from Islamic fundamentalism looms over. A devdasi initially resists her initiation into sex work, yet pushes her daughter into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling.
Dalrymple’s journey takes him from Sravanabelagola in Karnataka to the deserts of Rajasthan to the temples of Tanjore and Kerala and madrassas of Sindh before culminating in the lakeside country villages of West Bengal. He documents the oral histories of not just these nine lives but even of the cults and religions to which they belong, some going back to the time of the Rig Veda.
Each life acts “as a keyhole into the way that specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape.” Yet, in spite of all the development India boasts of, Dalrymple finds his holy men and women discussing and agonising “about the same eternal quandaries that absorbed the holy men of classical India thousands of years ago” – the quest for material wealth against the claims of the spirit, personal devotion against conventional religion, textual orthodoxy against the emotional appeal of mysticism and the age-old war of duty and desire.
That Dalrymple is an accomplished writer is a fact. But it’s remarkable journalism that makes this book a must-read. He steps aside and let’s the people be the focus of the story. He brings himself him as only the thread that holds the stories together. The author has done well to add a glossary and a very note on the origin of the font type (Linotype Stempel Garamond) used in the book.
Nine Lives isn’t just another travel book. It’s a window to contemporary India – the one that remains forgotten or hidden, but is very much out 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 has ever been, but it meanders within familiar banks.”