A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet--and spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence by hand printing the finest prayer flags in India . . . A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her closest friend ritually starve herself to death . . . A woman leaves her middle-class life in Calcutta and finds unexpected fulfillment living as a Tantric in an isolated, skull-filled cremation ground . . . A prison warder from Kerala is worshipped as an incarnate deity for three months of every year . . . An idol carver, the twenty-third in a long line of sculptors, must reconcile himself to his son's desire to study computer engineering . . . An illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan keeps alive in his memory an ancient four-thousand-stanza sacred epic . . . A temple prostitute, who initially resisted her own initiation into sex work, pushes both her daughters into a trade she nonetheless regards as a sacred calling.
William Dalrymple chronicles these lives with expansive insight and a spellbinding evocation of circumstance. And while the stories reveal the vigorous resilience of individuals in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernity, they reveal as well the continuity of ancient traditions that endure to this day. A dazzling travelogue of both place and spirit.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-05-17
- Reviewer: Staff
Historian-travel writer Dalrymple (The Last Mughal) knows his Asian subcontinent, having moved to New Delhi in 1989. The engine of Indian economic development is bringing rapid change, and Dalrymple spotlights changes and constancies brought about in India’s dizzyingly diverse religious practices. The titular nine lives are those of a variety of religious adherents: a Jain nun, a sacred dancer, a Sufi mystic, a Tantric practitioner, among others. His subjects, for the most part, do their own show-and-tell in explaining their religious paths, which differ but share the passionate devotion (bhakti) that characterizes popular religion in India. Dalrymple has a good eye, a better ear, and the humility to get out of the way of his subjects. It helps to know a bit about the subject coming in, as it saves endless flipping to a very helpful appended glossary. The author also notes in his introduction he has made a special effort to avoid exoticizing “mystic India,” yet he has picked some extremes to exemplify different kinds of religious beliefs and practices. Still, those are minor quibbles about this ambitious and affectionate book that respects popular religion. (June)
Evolving spiritual traditions of India
Since at least the 1960s—when millions of college students carried a copy of Hermann Hesse’s classic tale of Buddhist spirituality, Siddhartha, in their back pockets—Western society has often turned to the East in search of ancient wisdom associated with Indian religious traditions and religious practices as diverse as yoga, tantric sex and meditation. Although attention to these Indian religions suddenly flourished, very few of their admirers thought of them as dynamic, evolving spiritual traditions, capable of adapting to the changing needs of a rapidly developing society.
Now, in Nine Lives—a kind of follow-up to his stunning From the Holy Mountain—William Dalrymple brilliantly narrates the lives of nine people, from a prison warden to a Jain nun to a prostitute, to offer us a portrait of the ways in which India’s religious identity—far from being a deep well of unchanging wisdom—is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at lightning speed.
In Kannur, for example, Dalrymple meets Hari Das, a prison warden and well-digger. For nine months of the year, Das—whose job places him among the dalits, or “untouchables”—polices inmates; but for three months, between December and March, during the theyyam dancing season, the caste system is turned upside down as an untouchable turns into a Brahmin, or priest. Das transforms into the god Vishnu (the role he plays in these annual religious rituals), and everything in his life changes as he brings blessings to the villagers and exorcises evil spirits.
In a number of other compelling stories, Dalrymple’s first-rate book pulls back the curtain on modern Indian society and reveals how deeply the spiritual is etched in people’s lives and the creative ways in which these people are adapting their religious practices to momentous and rapid social changes.