25 May 2010

William Dalrymple's Nine Lives

Author: William Dalrymple
Pages: 260
Genre: Travelogue

Nine Lives: in search of the sacred in modern India

One knows William Dalrymple as a highly accomplished writer of travelogues and historical non-fiction. Over the past two decades, the author in his passionate quest to understand and explore Indian society, culture and history has given us some very fine works like The White Mughals, The City Of Djinns and The Last Mughal. Even his other books, In Xanadu and From the Holy Mountain that plunge into the discovery of other continents and people, have been equally acclaimed. What comes through is Dalrymple's immense love for travel and culture, and all this he puts together with utmost care, evident in his impeccable writing style, elegant covers and pretty illustrations which he does in collaboration with his talented wife Olivia.

With Nine Lives that was published last year (2009), Dalrymple travels through the length and breadth of the country to find the last remnants of mystic India. Given that westerners have always imagined ours to be a land of sadhus and snake charmers, it would be easy to conclude that Nine Lives is perhaps primarily an attempt at selling exotica.
Then again, religion today is seen as such a dangerous entity and divisive force that Dalrymple's preoccupation with the 'religious' in modern India can itself seem as something of an indulgence.

I took up the book with all these doubts whirling around my head. But having read it, one has to say that Nine Lives proves to be a thoroughly immersive journey. And this isn't a book about India just for the curious western reader but for many of us living in the cities as well. In fact, each story here could make for an excellent documentary film.

The book looks into the lives of nine people, living at the farthest corners of religious ecstasy. It explores various cults and sects, their rituals and practices. Importantly, it tries to understand the essence of each of these faiths and how they continue to persist amidst the country's fast changing landscape. You are acquainted with the rigourous lives led by Jain monks, with their belief in complete renunciation through the first story, The Nun's Tale. The Red Fairy is both an enchanting and telling exploration into the world of Sufis
(of Sindh) and the wonderfully syncretic nature of their faith, surviving under the threat of Talibanised Islam. The Singer of Epics brings forth the world of Pabuji worshipers and the bhopas who have been singing the epic of Pabuji (replete with tales of heroism, honour and struggle) for centuries now. The chapter also extends its concerns to the disappearing form of oral tradition throughout the world.
The Dancer of Kannur tracks the unusual lives of 'Theyyam' performers in Kannur (Kerala), where they become God-incarnate -- possessed by the deity -- while performing at temples. But it is only for the duration of the theyyam season when they are respected and worshipped. Once it's done, these men go back to their low paying manual jobs for the rest of the year. Dalrymple punctuates this chapter with rich episodes from history, folk and mythology. And as is the case with all the stories in the book where the social context plays an important role in the formation of a faith, the 'theyyam' form was a reaction against Kerala's oppressive, and rigid cast system. Many of the theyyam stories mock the Brahmins and Nayyars and criticise them for the way they treat their fellow human beings. According the theyyam performers, their practice has brought about a great change in the way lower castes are perceived and now the atrocities, they say, have greatly reduced.

Among the other stories that equally captivate you include the 'Bauls from Bengal' - the mad men who dismiss societal conventions; the 'devdasis' - once a royal tradition, now fallen from grace; the idol makers of Chola tradition - who try not to get sexually aroused by the alluring goddesses which they create.

Dalrymple is a compassionate narrator who puts the stories of the respective individuals at the forefront, while he himself remains at the background. This not only inverts the travelogue form (where the focus is always on the narrator), it also adds an element of fictional interest in each of the stories. The author seldom asserts himself strongly or questions anyone's faith. But the irony is sharp and
self-evident in each of the episodes.

Most of the faiths followed by these men and women are a reaction to the unrelenting and rigid nature of mainstream society, which pushes to the fringes those who don't fall in line with its conventions. Which is why most of these faiths speak the language of acceptance, humanity and love.

The book also points at the winds of modernity that are threatening to wipe out many of these faiths. Most of these practices are hereditary and the new generation is not interested in following their parent's vocation.
Nine Lives is about mystical India - about transcendental religion and ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. If the book moves you deeply, it is because these traditions are in all likelihood the last living symbols of a bygone era that offered a more humane and profound understanding of religion – certainly a far more liberating one from the fundamental overtones it has assumed in the present day. Also, the idea of renunciation and the search of the eternal truth is perhaps felt strongest in today's times of mindless material pursuits in the backdrop of terror attacks and other calamities.


Abhishek Bandekar said...

A very well written review of what appears to be a rather interesting read.

I can understand why & how this book may be charged with selling exotica, given its singular concern of exploring rare cults and their practices & traditions; it says more of our collective detachment and disassociation from what until a century ago were an integral part of our everyday existence. To label such an attempt thus at documenting fast-fading cultures as 'selling exotica' would be extremely unfair.

I must add that though I'm not a fan of Dalrymple, the subject matter of this particular book has most certainly fascinated me. Will read it ASAP.

Gouri Dange said...

...yes, agree with abhishek bandekar. i was in no mood to read about yet another bunch of indians in yet another 'pursuit' of something. hence did not pick it up...but sandhya's review makes me want to.

Anonymous said...

Someone told me about a Latin American writer,that author is a crap because i never understood his language.As for Darlymple it is a gift from God.
I had finished reading The Last Mughal in one stretch,a great book written in greater style, a must read.