Between the Covers

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

William Dalrymple

As India speeds ahead Dalrymple slows down in search of lives still steeped in ancient tradition. The stories he finds read stranger than fiction in this, his sixth travel book.

Travelling from desert villages to city alleys, from temples to a hut in a cremation ground, he explores diverse religious paths far removed from clichéd perceptions of ‘Mystic India’. Many live on the fringes of society in contrast to their forebears but the sacred, no matter how sidelined, holds tenaciously on.

These nine personable tales left me with a grassroots understanding of a complex India where castes and religions coexist with call centres and shopping malls. In one sentence Sri Kanda, a deity sculptor, recalls 700 years of unbroken lineage, then in the next accepts all his son wants is to play computers.

The characters Dalrymple meets are still points in “the eye of the storm”. Mohan, a village singer of Rajasthani epics, contends with DVDs and cable as India gives way to the ‘shrine of the telly’. Hari Das, a low caste Dalit, works as prison warder and well builder for nine months. Then for three he transforms into a dancing god worshipped by the very Brahmin who refused him drinking water.

Dalrymple engenders trust in the sincere way he prompts each story. There are delightful moments where his Scottish heritage shines, such as the description of Mohan’s dance costume: as if designed by an Elizabethan couturier marooned on a jungle island. From the nine voices come wonderful anecdotes. Passang, the Tibetan monk, recalls his abbot’s reply to a Chinese colonel that it was “up to each man to liberate himself.” Sri Kanda describes how the idols he sculpts have horoscopes and their eyes can only be carved before dawn.

To be privy to the thoughts of a Jain nun continuing a 2000-year lineage of asceticism was deeply affecting. Her decision, at 38, to begin sallekhana, the renunciation of food until death, was shocking. “But why?” Dalrymple asks. His questions are as candid as the replies and I finished this chapter understanding her choice rather than judging it. For me this is the essence of this empathetic and honest book.

In the final chapter Kanai, a wandering minstrel, says, “the body is the true temple, the true mosque, the true church.” It’s as if he speaks for all nine lives. Through them an intimate India comes to life. I recommend brewing a pot of chai before settling down to the songs and stories of these living libraries.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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