From the author of The Last Mughal (“A compulsively readable masterpiece” —The New York Review of Books), an exquisite, mesmerizing book that illuminates the remarkable ways in which traditional forms of religious life in India have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change—a book that distills the author’s twenty-five years of travel in India, taking us deep into ways of life that we might otherwise never have known exist.
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.
"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.