Book: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple (NEW June 2010)
William Dalrymple is still trying to explain India. He is well equipped to do that because in addition to accolades as a travel writer, he is praised for his scholarship and has lived part of each year in India for a couple of decades now. His highly acclaimed White Mughals and the best selling City of Djinns made him one of the must-read names mentioned when outstanding contemporary travel literature is discussed.
In Nine Lives, he follows up his amazement at the many forms of devotion that he encounters in India with meticulous research and interviews that sometimes rolled on for days, so that his experiences become the experiences of the readers.
As he explains in the Introduction, he does not attempt to discuss all of the religions practiced in India. He portrays nine people whose beliefs differ significantly from the beliefs generally practiced in the Western world. From practices that seem understandable, if rigorous, to those that seem downright bizarre, we learn about religious minorities that even regular travelers to India may not have heard of before.
In order to get the stories, he travels from the Himalayans in the north to the oceans in the South and sits through hours-long rituals, walks alongside believers, and respectfully questions the practitioners.It is travel with a purpose, but the kind of mindful travel that we all would do well to consider.
He avoids judging the people he interacts with, even when he is faced with issues like assisted suicide and coerced child prostitution.The Jain nun, brushes the earth before her with a feather so as to avoid killing even a small being, but believes that the greatest act is to commit suicide by slowly starving. A Buddhist monk struggles with the issue of monks going to war. A mother who resented being turned into a religious prostitute as a child, nevertheless does the same with her daughters. But there are more heart-warming stories as well.
For the most part the stories read like stories and are clear and dramatic. A glossary in the back helps with unfamiliar terms. At times, however, the writing becomes as complex as the system of Hindu gods and goddesses.
Many scholars believe that just as the Sufi fakirs of Sehwan Sharif model their dreadlocks, red robes and dust-smeared bodies on those of Shaivite sadhus, so the dhammal derives from the damaru drum of Shiva, by which, in his form of Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance, the Destroyer drums the world back into existence after dancing it into extinction.
I still am not sure what that passage is all about.
More understandable to a person reading today’s headlines is the struggle between the Sufis, who traditionally shared a place of worship with Muslims and the strict Wahhabis who are banning access of Hindus to Muslim mosques. An illiterate woman accuses them of hypocrisy, and quotes an ancient poet:
Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah? You are lost in words.
You keep on speaking nonsense, Then you worship yourself.
Despite seeing God with your own eyes, you dive into the dirt.
We Sufis have taken the flesh from the holy Quran, While you dogs are fighting with each other.
Always tearing each other apart, For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.
It is difficult to see a single thread that ties these nine lives together, and indeed, Dalrymple does not try. If they have anything in common, it is poverty in material possessions but richness in spirit. Seldom does one encounter cynicism or doubt.
Although I have never had any interest in traveling to India, I definitely enjoyed this book, and consider it worthwhile both as sociology and as a travel book for those interested in learning more about the complex and varied country. A definite plus for the travel library.
I wrote earlier about an essay Dalrymple wrote about travel writing; and guest Sue Dickman wrote about City of Djinns. The photos above come from Flickr and are used under a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photos to learn more and to meet the photographers. A pre-publication review copy of the book, Nine Lives, was provided to me by the publisher, Alfred A Knopf.
Do you like to delve into the religious customs of a country that you are visiting? Does such a book count as travel literature?