NINE LIVES-IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED IN MODERN INDIA by William Dalrymple. Knopf. June 2010. Hardcover. 304 pages. $26.95


India as the land of the mystical and the exotic has been romanticized for a long time by the West. Stories abound of half-naked sadhus performing great feats of strength, of esoteric religious practices and strange rituals. With India growing rapidly in to a modern economic powerhouse, the role that the march to modernity has had in influencing the religious traditions of India is the arena that William Dalrymple attempts to explore. As the title suggests, Dalrymple takes an interesting approach towards his study of the conflict between the forces of traditions and modernism by looking at the life stories of nine individual practitioners of various religious traditions.

All of the stories follow a pattern. They involve a section setting up the story, an explanation of the religious tradition underlying the story and, finally, a look in to the life of the practitioner—the circumstances in which he/she came to their practice and their views on where the practice is headed. There is not a unifying narrative to the book and the stories can be read in any order. What provides the cohesion in Nine Lives is its geographical sweep, with stories from all parts of India (and in one case, Pakistan), and also the various religious traditions—Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Islam—it deals with.

In this book, Dalrymple takes a shot at what he calls the “Ramafication” of India— the attempts of Hindu nationalist politicians to impose a homogeneous view of Hinduism as the national religion of the country. He does this by showing us varying glimpses of the ideas, knowledge, and local traditions that have co-existed and informed the religious practices of the populace, regardless of what religion they claim to belong to. The book occupies that hyphenated position between travel writing and history—what Colin Thubron does for Central Asia in his book Shadow of the Silk Road, only in a more personal and immediate sense. The lives and stories chronicled here are germane, not just to amateur students of religion and ritual, but to Indians in general. India does not equal Hindu; India is not merely about 330 million gods, the dancing god, the elephant god, or the monkey god. Often Indians (even those that may not be practicing Hindus) may be called upon to capture the essence of the culture’s religious traditions into neat categories—pantheistic, phallic—but no, there is more, Dalrymple tells you. Just ask, he would dare say. Just probe a little deeper and you will discover an original narrative there.

One way to measure the success of a chronicler is to look at the desire he/she provokes in the reader to want to visit the places and the characters central to their story. A remarkable chronicler, Dalrymple is at his best when he describes the surroundings in which his characters live, the small details of how their lives were shaped and are now influenced. Descriptions of the landscapes of rural Sindh, the cremation grounds of eastern India, the temple towns of the South, and the mountains of the North are vivid.

The chapter titled “The maker of idols,” set in a village near the southern Indian temple town of Swamimalai is a good example. The story revolves around an idol-maker whose family has been crafting bronze-cast idols using a lost wax process from the time of Chola king Rajaraja I in the 10th century AD. Dalrymple describes in striking detail the landscape of that region—the verdant green of the Kaveri delta—and quotes from erotic Tamil poetry from the Chola period to elucidate how sexuality has been a part of aesthetics in India for a very long time. In the course of a conversation, where Dalrymple tries to explore the nuances of idol worshipping in India, Srikanda the idol maker tellingly describes the relationship between the idol and the devotee—“Without faith, of course, it is just a sculpture. It’s the faith of the devotees that turns it in to a god.”

One challenge with chronicling and being the outsider is that one must have the capacity to not merely be a historian and bookend with historical facts, but rather get at the motivations of how things came to be as they are, and where they are headed now—to ask the questions of the characters that the reader would want to ask if they were in the author’s place. In this Dalrymple does a masterful job, probing into the lives of the characters, gently persuading them to speak of their dreams, their desires, and also the circumstances that shaped their life story.

There is however, a little too much of the romanticizing of the call of the open road, the life of no possessions and voluntary simplicity, that may put off some readers. He also plays to stereotypes in his portrayals of some of the mystics. Repeatedly referring to the sadhus as half-naked in the stories, as opposed to “clad only in a dhoti” or indeed “clad in a dhoti” is perhaps his way to appealing to a Western audience to whom that may be a more visceral resonance.

However, as a book that exposes the reader to the sheer diversity of India’s religious practices and exquisitely chronicles the seemingly ordinary yet unique stories of the practitioners in an engaging, easy to read style, Nine Lives is a success.

Girija lives in Atlanta and works in the area of International Development