Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, 304pp, £20 (hardback)

Since writing In Xanadu in his early twenties – an account of his journey to the pleasure dome of Kublai Khan in Outer Mongolia – historian and travel writer William Dalrymple has written extensively about the Middle East and Asia. His erudite but accessible scholarship and deep understanding of the people and places about which he writes have earned him both a devoted following and comparisons to travel-writing greats like Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Considering these comparisons, then, an interesting aspect of Nine Lives, Dalrymple’s fifth book about the Indian subcontinent and his first book of travel writing for fifteen years, is its stated desire to break away from the genre’s traditional reliance on an outsider-narrator observing and retelling the ‘other’.

Consequently, this exploration of the sacred and mystical existent in a nation currently developing as an economic power with breathtaking rapidity is notable for the absence of a defining authorial persona. As Dalrymple explains in his detailed introduction: ‘I have made a conscious effort to try and avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters’.

In this he succeeds: whilst the book is an engrossing mixture of history, anthropology and travelogue, it is the voices of the nine, each following ‘a different form of devotion, or different religious path’, that guide the narrative. By bringing their lives to the reader with such immediacy and clarity we are offered a way into worlds that could have seemed only obscurely fascinating and remote; given a vivid glimpse of what Dalrymple describes as the ‘extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape’.

The rich narrative journey with its motley cast of prostitutes, idol-makers, skull-feeders and ascetics begins in the south-west state of Karnataka and moves around the subcontinent via a route that takes in Sehwan in southern Pakistan and Dharamsala in the far north of India, before ending at the joyous annual gathering of Bauls – spiritualists and wandering minstrels – in West Bengal.

Dalrymple glimpses his first subject, the ‘tiny, slender, barefoot figure of the nun’ Prasannamati Mataji, as he climbs with hundreds of other pilgrims to the statue of the Jain hero, Prince Bahubali, above the ancient village of Sravanabelagola in southern India. Jain ascetics must become wanderers, relinquishing all attachments – material and emotional – in order to draw closer to enlightenment. The life is one of great hardship, and ‘the most important sacrifice for Jains is not puja [religious devotions] or ritual, but the sacrifice of one’s own body’.

Once he has been given permission to speak with her, Prasannamati tells Dalrymple her story: how she felt the call to this ascetic life as a young girl, and against the wishes of her wealthy and doting family took diksha, the initiation ritual that involves the plucking of the initiate’s hair. It is a path she has followed gladly ever since, explaining, ‘“This wandering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls.”’ Yet Dalrymple was drawn to her amidst the multitude of pilgrims because ‘there was something sad and wistful about her expression’.

The reason for this sadness quickly emerges as she continues her story: a few years prior to meeting Dalrymple, her travelling companion of twenty years and fellow nun, Prayogamati, became very ill. Western medicines and treatments are forbidden, and when it became clear she had no hope of recovery, Prayogamati chose to take sallekhana – a gradual and ritual starvation that is believed to bring the deceased closer to Nirvana. Prasannamati tended her as she died and has been left with a lasting grief. Without realising it, her close friendship compromised her faith: ‘“I wept [when she died] even though we are not supposed to. Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment […] but I still remember her.”’ Hauntingly, when Dalrymple leaves her, she tells him that she too has begun sallekhana.

The theme of loss and personal tragedy amidst the refuge of faith is one that runs through all nine tales. It is there as Tashi Passang, a Buddhist monk from Tibet, recalls how he took arms to ‘“protect the ways of the Lord Buddha”’ after the Chinese invaded his homeland in 1950. As the threat to the monks and monasteries become violent and real, Tashi escaped to the hills, but to try and find his whereabouts the People’s Liberation Army cruelly tortured and caused the premature death of his mother. Wracked with guilt about her death, the path he felt compelled to choose, and the hatred he felt for the invaders for many years, he has now retaken his vows and seeks atonement by printing prayer flags for the temple in Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley.

And in Belgaum, near Goa on the east cost, the devadasi Rani Bai tells the story of how she came to be ‘married’ to the goddess Yellama as a fourteenyear- old girl. Once a ‘sacred prostitution’ wherein young girls were ‘given’ to the great Hindu temples, the devadasis have now lost their social and spiritual standing, and the tradition is just a way for poor families to sell their daughters into prostitution. Rani’s life has been blighted by this unasked for calling and the loss of many friends and her two daughters to disease – what Dalrymple discovers is HIV/AIDS – yet remains devoted to her goddess and benefactress, believing she understands her, watches over and protects her.

Loss of another kind emerges from the ancient world’s collision with the potentially homogenising effects of modernity. All nine stories contain elements of this friction between old and new, and it is not only about the sacred; as Dalrymple notes in his introduction: ‘India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups’. And perhaps this is nowhere more strikingly demonstrated than in the story of Hari Das.

Born into the Dalit caste, those formerly called the untouchables, in the still highly conservative state of Kannur in Kerala, Hari Das is a well builder and jail warder for nine months of the year, roles where he is still subject to caste prejudice: ‘“I can dig a well in a [Brahmin] house and still be banned from drawing water from it.”’ But from December to February his life and status are inverted to the point that rich Brahmin families will queue up just for the privilege of touching his feet and to ask for his blessing.

During an annual three-month season, Hari Das is a theyyam dancer, a ‘part-time god’. Theyyam is a possession dance native to north Kerala wherein the dancer, who, significantly, is always of a lower caste, becomes possessed by the gods. Hari Das describes the intense experience of transformation: ‘“When the drums are playing and your make-up is finished, they hand you a mirror […] Then it comes […] You become the deity.”’

This calling brings great respect and personal fulfilment, as well as the opportunity to invert the caste system, albeit temporarily; in a Brahmindominated society, theyyam is, ‘as much a tool and weapon to resist and fight back against an unjust social system as a religious revelation’.

Hari Das is driven and inspired by a practice he feels is deeply interwoven with his sense of self, an art that has been passed down to him through his family, and in which he is already training his two sons. But he is worried: ‘“As our people rise up and become more educated, I fear for the future”’ – a concern shared by many of those Dalrymple meets, as younger generations try to escape the restrictions of poverty through education and the hope of well-paid jobs in the big cities.

Whilst societal upheaval and change are unavoidable in a rapidly modernising society, a far more sinister threat to the sanctuary of faith is found in Lal Peri’s story. A Sufi living in Sehwan in Sindh, the southwest corner of Pakistan, she is an Indian Muslim from Bihar thrice exiled by religious and political conflict. A ‘deeply eccentric ascetic’ living in the shrines of Sindh, Lal Peri always dresses in scarlet, carries a club for protection and is known as ‘The Red Fairy’ – as the fakir who tells Dalrymple about her remarks, ‘“she is unmistakable”’.

Sufism is an esoteric and mystical branch of Islam unusual for its strong links to Hinduism, in particular in the way it emphasises ‘the individual’s search for direct knowledge of the divine’. Followers are unorthodox ascetics who believe in the forgiveness of sin and finding God in all things. Thus Sufism is a very positive link – geographically, theologically and symbolically – between Hindu India and the Islamic Middle East.

But now this heterodox faith is under threat from the mullahs and Wahhabis of Pakistan who claim Sufism is not Islamic. When Dalrymple visits Maulana Saleemullah, the director of the madrasa recently established in Sehwan, he finds an intelligent gentle man, whose words are chilling. With thousands of madrasas opening all over Pakistan, Saleemullah explains he is ‘“full of hope”’ that Sufi practices will die out, and warns ‘“a more extreme form of the Taliban is coming to Pakistan”’. When Dalrymple asks what will happen if a Caliphate is established in Pakistan, Sallemullah immediately tells him it will be their duty to destroy Sufi places of worship – a process already begun by Pakistani Taliban in the north-west, who destroyed a Sufi shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass in March 2009. Dalrymple gives very little personal reaction to what he learns – an authorial decision that makes the chapter all the more powerful – but you can sense his dismay.

Yet there is always hope, and all those Dalrymple speaks to, including Lal Peri and the Sufi holy man Sain Fakir, believe their traditions and faiths will not die out or be destroyed. As Sain Fakir explains, in Sufism ‘“all religions [are] one […] merely different manifestations of the same divine reality”’.

His words could have served as the book’s epigraph: the search for enlightenment is the heartbeat that runs through all nine stories, and all the different faiths and beliefs that Dalrymple encounters. And the author’s unobtrusive presence allows the complexities and paradoxes of their chosen paths to emerge, so that Lives becomes an exploration of the universality of faith, as well as a study of the history and continuance of the sacred in twenty-first-century India.

Besides, as Dalrymple explains, the spiritual traffic is not all one way. The inspiration for the book came in 1993 when he met a young saddhu (a wandering holy man), smeared in ash and completely naked, on a pilgrimage to the Himalayan temple of Kedarnath. Much to Dalrymple’s surprise, the saddhu explained that he was an MBA graduate, and had been a high-flying sales manager just four years previously.

And whilst many amongst the upwardly mobile middle-classes may seem to reject ancient traditions and rituals, privately – if they have family problems or money worries – many still return to ask for the blessings of the gods. As Manisha Ma Bhairavi, a follower of the controversial Tantric cult in the mysterious and sacred cremation ground of Tarapith in West Bengal, rather amusingly explains, despite the Communist Party’s ‘Anti- Superstition Committees’ and denouncing of Tantric practices, ‘“Our local Communist MP [comes here] with a goat to sacrifice when he wants to find out from us what the election results will be.”’

The only weak element of the Lives is that, despite Dalrymple’s description of his work as ‘a collection of linked non-fiction short stories’, from a literary perspective the storytelling is hindered by the book’s aim to present real lives unimpeded by a subjective narrator. This renders the prose a little workmanlike at times, the descriptions of place engaging but not truly transporting, and Dalrymple’s identity as a writer somewhat repressed, so careful is he never to impose on the voices or intrude into the stories of his nine characters.

To judge it on such criteria, however, is perhaps to miss the point of the author’s endeavour (and his own sacrifice as a writer) to bring these voices so directly to the page. On its own terms, Nine Lives is both a fascinating uncovering of the arcane and mystical, and a study of modern India that will only increase in its import as time goes on, dealing as it does with a nation on the verge of momentous change – albeit change that, as this richly evocative and a significant book reveals, cannot repress the power of faith.

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