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

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but as I read this book, I felt I had to write about it.

I had heard of William Dalrymple, but had never managed to get hold of it. For some reason, my library’s online search never yielded any results. One day, at the library, I managed to browse through the ‘History and Culture’ section and came across this book. I had no idea whether this was aclaimed or not, but liked what I could glean from the back cover. This is what it says

‘ In this title, a Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve to death. A woman leaves her middle-class family in Calcutta, and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfilment living as a Tantric skull feeder in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden from Kerala becomes, for two months of the year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as a deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison. An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 4,000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi – or temple prostitute – initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling. Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story.’

After reading the book, I have to say, I was not disappointed in any way. Dalrymple, covers nine lives, nine people, who have given up materialistic lives and turned towards the spiritual. Spiritual ways that are as diverse as possible from each other. From a Jain nun who pulls out her hair one by one, as part of her vocation, to tantriks who live on cremation grounds. Each just as spiritual, just as believing in their path to divine happiness.

The best part of the book, for me was the way it is written. The author chronicles each story with such compassion, honesty, and being totally non-judgemental. It takes you right to where the story unfolds and gives you an insight to what might be propelling people to give up their lives for what they consider their faith.  He lets their words say their story.

A fascinating account of how diverse India really is, and how beautifully all these diverse faiths and beliefs have lived together, in peace. How Hindus go to Sufi saints for blessings, and how Brahmins get blessings from a Dalit temple dancer. When trouble comes calling, people are ready to try anything that might work. This book is all about how faith intermingled with modernity, of how the old traditions are still revered and followed, even if some of the people who actually keep these traditions alive find it difficult to lead lives without taking on other jobs in order to make ends meet.

It also indicates how these practises might soon come to an end. In case of the illiterate story-teller in Rajasthan, the book talks about how education seems to threaten this ancient at of storytelling. For some reason, when people get educated, their ability to read seems to reduce their ability to remember the epics word by word. Interesting, isn’t it?

I would give it a 5/5, for being the most fascinating book I have read in recent times. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in historical and cultural books.