February issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

The material world is a prison. Seeking divinity is freeing. This is why many of the people featured in William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives have chosen an existence dedicated to spiritual devotion. But the nine real-life stories in Dalrymple’s examination of faith in an increasingly capitalistic India show that while a deeply religious life can allow people to escape the pressures of a modern world, it cannot guarantee absolute peace.

In fact, the spiritual journeys of the people in Nine Lives are filled with pain, loss, and fear. The lures of the material world are not the only challenges Dalrymple’s subjects face. The world has many ways to test them: emotional needs, religious intolerance, war, broken families, estranged children, unforeseen detours, impossible vows, rejection and failure. This book is not just about the survival of faith in modern India, it is about survival.

All this, on the surface, makes Nine Lives an unlikely travel book. Nonetheless, it works as an exploration of one element of a country. That element, spirituality, offers many things odd, fascinating and different (the typical fodder for travelogues) while being at the core of India’s history and culture.

Dalrymple uses surprisingly simple writing and straightforward storytelling. But like the faiths he explores, the stories he shares extract a complex of emotions from those who study them. Neither this book as a whole nor any single story within it invoke any one feeling. This speaks much more about humanity and life than it does Dalrymple’s writing style. That’s because his point of view only flits in and out of the stories. His voice is restrained. He acts a presenter of sorts, exploring the worlds of the devout without letting his impressions and judgements colour the re-telling too much: he lets the people and places speak for themselves. This was his goal: “I have tried to keep the narrator firmly in the shadows,” writes Dalrymple, “so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.” There are pages upon pages of individual monologues that are only interrupted by the author’s desire for deeper understanding (“Was that true?” he asks of a Sadhu who was accused by his son of being neglectful and uncaring), or by a spontaneous show of sympathy (“But why?” he asks surprisingly when he hears that a young Jain nun is preparing to ritually give up life). It is only when he turns off the microphone that we hear his voice. And even then it is mostly to provide background and a sense of place.

Still, he is much more than a fly on the wall. He moves beyond silent witness to interact with these extraordinary people so we may get to know them intimately. We do not simply see them practice their faiths (as a silent witness would do), we hear them explain the forces (both divine and human) that pulled and pushed them onto their spiritual paths. The stories Dalrymple gathered are a product of criss-crossing journeys over the subcontinent to meet his subjects and long days spent with them. He was like a scientist in the field, observing and conducting interviews in eight different languages. He tries to make sense of everything he has seen and heard by ensuring the subjective personal stories are buttressed by objective research. Dalrymple has consulted text after text on the faiths he explored. Strong scholarship without a deadly scholarly tone is the end result (for the most part: the history of Tantrism backing the story of Manisha Ma, a woman who collects and drinks from skulls, was less fluid than other background segments and required a second reading).

It is the words of Dalrymple’s subjects that carry this book, though. Of course, it is impossible to imagine that their spoken personal narratives have not been cut, edited and oiled so that they flow with the gripping ease that they all possess. Still, their stories are their own. Through their openness, nine different religious paths are laid bare. Surprisingly, the book becomes more than a window into tradition, religion and the divine in a fast-changing India. It becomes a window into life in an always challenging world. So while the stories may reveal the most extreme, exotic and bizarre in faith, they also reveal the most normal, familiar and universal in humanity — all the good and all the bad. And it is this that extracts the aforementioned complex of emotions, including sympathy, awe, shock, envy and sadness.

Dalrymple introduces us to a Jain nun whose vow of detachment proves to be impossible: she is shocked at the level of pain she feels when a fellow nun dies and is shocked at her own failure. But her belief in her devotion remains unchanged. A Dalit talks about what it is like to be possessed by a god every year during an annual festival, get respect for being a dancing deity and then return to the hard life as a well digger and prison guard. An idol maker who continues the divine work that has passed from generation to generation for over 700 years worries about what will happen after he dies: “My son says this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.” A club-wielding Sufi devotee, who found acceptance in Sehwan Sharif, along with another disciple of Lal Shahbaz Qalander consider the Wahhabi threat that has set up shop in their neighbourhood in rural Sindh.

Even though some religious traditions look as fragile as life (singers who commit 100,000-stanza epic poems to memory), a rapidly developing India will not touch all Indians and is unlikely to spell the end of devotion in its varied forms. India’s population is still over 70% rural, and as much 42% of the population lives in poverty. Answers, solace and the familiarity of faith will provide for those who are dismayed, lost and left behind. Moreover, as Nine Lives proves, there will always be the privileged who feel the pull of the divine and trade their possessions for asceticism. Despite all the obstacles, challenges and changes, devotion survives. And in India, it seems to go hand-in-hand with the human spirit.