India’s reputation for spirituality – a cliché as old as the Beatles – has been replaced in recent years by more modern images about its rising economy. Yet the swamis have not entirely given way to software engineers, as William Dalrymple’s new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, shows. Through the stories of nine people, told simply and powerfully, Dalrymple unpicks the diversity and complexity of religious belief and spiritual practice in the subcontinent, while underscoring the fragility of some of these unique traditions in a rapidly modernizing country.
Like Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” a medieval work Dalrymple invokes in his introduction (the first chapter is titled “The Nun’s Tale”), “Nine Lives” presents a wonderful pageant of believers whose stories are as much about spirituality as about society. The lives include a devadasi, one of a traditional community of sex workers dedicated as girls to the goddess Yellama; a low-caste prison warden in Kerala who is not welcome in Brahmin houses but who, for two months of the year, becomes a divine dancer to whom the Brahmins bow; and a blind Baul singer of Bengal, part of a community of wandering minstrels who make no distinctions of caste or religion but sing of the god within.
Many of Dalrymple’s pilgrims are misfits or marginals, with the odd middle-class person or Brahmin. Their tales are bittersweet; the seekers of spiritual bliss are also refugees from worldly pain. A woman who is a refugee thrice-over finds peace in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan’s Sindh province, even as the Taliban’s Islam advances in the region. A Buddhist monk flees Tibet, gives up his vows to join the Indian Army to fight against China, and then does penance for his sins.
Yet other stories are pervaded with a sense of impending loss – a bronze caster of idols doesn’t know if his computer-obsessed son will carry on his 700-year-old heritage and a Rajasthani singer of epics is among the last of an endangered and ancient oral tradition.
Above all, “Nine Lives” highlights the plural and often syncretic nature of the subcontinent’s religious practices and reveals how very intertwined these practices are with the particularities of its natural landscape and social structures. They have a singularity of context and community that does not translate easily into, for instance, the vague mysticism of the New Agers.
Writing about religion and spirituality in India can be fraught with the dangers of misunderstanding and exoticization, as the author himself has noted. Dalrymple, a scholar of religion and Indian history who has been living near Delhi for many years, avoids these minefields in part by leaving it to his subjects to speak for themselves.
Much of this book is in reported speech with the frame provided by the author’s lyrical descriptions of the Indian landscape and deceptively simple explanations of the historical and social context. It’s a technique unusual in American nonfiction narrative, but one that serves its subjects beautifully: Even the taboo-breaking tantrics, who worship the ferocious goddess Tara with skulls, escape caricature. One dreadlocked tantric lives amid the jackals and corpses of a cremation ground, but is described holding a transistor radio to his ear, excitedly following India’s score in an international cricket match.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is a Monitor correspondent.