Format: Hardback, 304 pages, 234x153mm
Published: October 2009
"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!