Nine Lives

The brilliant William Dalrymple, now in his mid-forties, has changed and developed considerably during the two decades since his appearance on the literary scene. Then, he was a breezy, jovial travel writer in the great tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Eric Newby, and his first book, In Xanadu (1989)—the account of a journey in the footsteps of Marco Polo—has survived as a classic of that genre. But with the years Dalrymple has become more serious and scholarly, and more of a historian than a travel writer.

From the Holy Mountain (1997), describing the remaining Christian communities of the Middle East, was so engrossing it inspired me to visit the region myself. City of Djinns (1994) and The Last Mughal (2006) dealt with the convoluted history of Delhi and the Mughal Empire. Now, with Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, he has broadened his scope to include India’s entire religious landscape.

The centrality of religious life struck Dalrymple immediately upon his arrival in the subcontinent in the early 1990s. On a trek to the Himalayan temple of Kedamath, he was stunned to see that “every social class from every corner of the country was there. There were groups of farmers, illiterate labourers and urban sophisticates from north and south all rubbing shoulders like something out of a modern Indian Canterbury Tales.” Ash-smeared, naked sadhus (itinerant holy men) were everywhere. Striking up a conversation with one of these fellows, Dalrymple learned that his new acquaintance had, not too many years before, served as sales manager for a Bombay consumer electrical company.

“The sort of world where a committed, naked naga sadhu could also be an MBA was something I was to become used to,” writes Dalrymple. He was to spend much of the next twenty years in the subcontinent, acquiring a prodigious knowledge of Indian religion and culture and a fascination with the way weird regional variants and local cults persisted in the face of rapid modernization and religious homogenization. What has kept so many local traditions alive and vital? How is it possible that a “fabulously and unrepentantly pagan ceremony” like the theyyam rituals of Kannur, in which different deities annually “possess” the bodies of certain spiritually gifted Untouchables, can still flourish in the twenty-first century? How has Southern India managed to retain a sacred topography in which “every village is believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods, who are said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life”?

Nine Lives is the book that grew from Dalrymple’s fascination with these problems, and if what I have just written makes it sound like the usual multi-culti celebration of “diversity,” that is very far from being the case. The author has chosen nine individuals whose lives are shaped by one or another of India’s many religious traditions and allowed them to tell their own stories through him; some of these stories are very dark, so that the reader can’t help wondering whether the religious practices in question serve merely as balm for these broken lives, or whether they might be entwined in the very roots of dislocation and tragedy.

Take the first story, for instance, that of a Jain nun named Prasannamati Mataji. There is undoubtedly something beautiful in the selfless asceticism of her creed, and she defends it eloquently: “going into the unknown world and confronting it without a single rupee in our pockets,” she tells Dalrymple, “means that differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all vanish, and a common humanity emerges.”  But what are we to make of sallekhana, the ritual fast to the death—a form of suicide? Mataji’s fellow-nun and dearest friend, Prayogamati, performed this act when her sufferings from untreated tuberculosis became too painful. (Jains are not allowed to use Western medicines because they are tested on animals.) Now Mataji, though still in her thirties, has embarked on her own ritual starvation. She claims the act is beautiful, the ultimate rejection of all desires. A psychiatrist might venture to diagnose her as deeply depressed after the preventable loss of her beloved companion. Is there an answer? Dalrymple doesn’t go there.

“I have made a conscious effort to try to avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters,” he writes, “and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.”  Dalrymple has succeeded in escaping the clichés—his writing, as always, is fresh and clear-headed—but he has not been able to avoid imposing himself on these stories, and perhaps such a thing is not ever possible. The author, after all, edits: he chooses what and whom to include, which segments of their conversation to transcribe and which to omit, and he shapes rambling conversations into tight, literary constructions with a pointed narrative arc. He makes no overt judgments; but nothing is to stop the reader from doing so.

How do we handle, for instance, the heartbreaking tale of Rani Bai, a devadasi who was dedicated by her parents to the goddess Yellamma at the age of six? The devadasis have a venerable history and at least in theory a wide variety of religious functions, but in recent years their work has come to be exclusively centered on the sex trade. They have a slightly higher status than ordinary prostitutes—for lip service is still paid to Yellamma—but their lives are just as hard, just as painful. “For the very poor, and the very pious, the devadasi system is still seen as providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the gods, the two things the poor most desperately crave.” The devadasis support their extended families and then, when struck down by AIDS, they are cast out by these same families and left to die in extreme penury. Rani Bai has lost both her teenage daughters to AIDS. Now she herself, still only thirty-eight, is infected with the virus. “We have a lot of misery to bear,” she says. “But that is our tradition. That is our karma.

Some of the tales told here can be joyful. There are Moha Bhopa and his wife Batasi, for instance, hereditary singers of a medieval Rajasthan epic that is 4000 lines long and takes five eight-hour sessions to recite. It is remarkable, and thrilling, that such things still go on more than three thousand years after the time of Homer. And there is Hari Das the theyyam dancer, a Dalit (Untouchable) who works for nine months out of the year as a lowly well-digger and prison guard and then, during the theyyam season, becomes an incarnate god, worshipped and propitiated by the Brahman bigshots who in normal times will not even let him take a drink from the wells he digs for them lest he pollute their homes. And then there is Srikanda Stpathy, the sculptor of bronze idols, whose family has been in the business for all of a thousand years. “The gods created man,” he tells Dalrymple, “but here we are so blessed that we—simple men as we are—help to create the gods.”

Clearly Dalrymple’s choices of subjects highlight both the destructive and creative aspects of religious zeal, but it is perhaps the consolatory aspect of religion that is here the most striking, its ability to impose apparent purpose and meaning on even the most pitiable lives. This is what Dalrymple found on his visit to the cremation ground at Tarapith in Bengal, where Tantric acolytes of the goddess Tara perform animal sacrifices, grub among skulls and human remains, and perform “ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women—for Tara’s devotees believe that the goddess transmutes all that is forbidden and taboo, and turns these banned acts and forbidden objects into pathways of power.” Everything in my secular Protestant soul revolted against the images conjured up here. And yet, looking at the scene through the eyes of Dalrymple’s guide, Manisha Ma, I saw something else: “a palpable sense of community among the vulnerable outcastes, lunatics and misfits who have come to live there…. It is a place where even the most damaged and marginal can find intimacy and community, and establish their own center of gravity.” The provision of such comfort is why the human religious impulse can never be suppressed, in spite of all the outraged rationalists and their polemics.