In contemporary non- fiction coming out of India, few authors have written with such authority and passion about India’s pre-independence history as William Dalrymple. His works about Mughal India are not only comprehensive but also immensely popular. Besides his journalistic writings in publications worldwide, Dalrymple is a pioneer of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, and is now working on his eighth book, Nine Lives, a work of fiction.
Shortly before leaving for Dharamsala to interview one of the characters of the book, Dalrymple spoke to Lounge about the new project, how it is different from his previous works and finally, about writing?his?Eastern?spirituality book. Edited excerpts:
Some websites have described Nine Lives as a travelogue-meets-spirituality book based in modern India. Tell us what the book is about.
At home: Nine Lives, expected to release in October, will be the Delhi-based author’s eighth book. Manpreet Romana / AFP
In terms of format, Nine Lives is a collection of nine sort of non-fiction short stories. The book takes the literary form of the short story to trace the trajectory of nine lives that are both ordinary and extraordinary. Or let me put it like this: ordinary lives that intersect in interesting and unexpected ways with religion.
And they are all Indian?
Yes, they are all Indian, and mostly Hindu, lives. Though there are other religions as well.
What makes these lives and the religion in their lives unique and interesting?
What I have tried to do is show how religion affects people’s lives in modern India by picking pairs of profiles, of people who live in India, currently of course, and see how they sort of contradict yet help better understand each other.
For instance, one of my profiles is of a Muslim jihadi, who fought in Kashmir and has now become a Sufi mystic in Srinagar. And he is set against a Tibetan monk who lived peacefully as a monk for many years before picking up arms to fight the Chinese in Tibet. Later he went into repentance and now lives in Dharamsala, painting plant life. That pair will sort of show the role of ahimsa (non-violence), himsa (violence) and the balance between both in religions.
And all the profile pairings will have such diametrically opposite roots?
Yes. But they will all somehow come to the same end in their religion.
To give you one more example, I have a devadasi (temple dancer); she was a daughter of a poor shepherd in Saundatti, Karnataka, who was raped when she was 14 and then sold off as a devadasi to a temple.
And she is set off against a 42-year-old Jain nun who was born into a rich family of Rajasthani Jains in Bihar. She left everything to join a band of wandering nuns when she was 18. She left her home and family, took up a vow of celibacy and left behind all her possessions except two saris and a fan of peacock feathers. And now she is renouncing food and drink till she slowly dies.
This one seems like a big departure from the scope and tone of your previous books.
Oh yes. Here each of the nine lives will be around 10,000 words long. So the whole book will be around 90,000 words long. My previous books, White Mughals and The Last Mughal in particular, were several times that in length. They were huge doorstoppers! But the canvas is also different. The book still remains within India and the Middle East area, like my previous books. And I think I will patch in ideas from all of my previous seven books into this one. But in terms of form, it is different. And as a writer I think it is important to change your form once in a while as well.
What was the inspiration for this sudden choice of a new topic and new format?
The idea was always in my mind in a vague and unformed manner. But it was while profiling the devadasi in Karnataka for Random House’s Aids Sutra that the concept shaped up.
You had also said that you would be working on a multi-volume history of Mughal India. Is that project still on track?
Yes it is. But I am glad this idea came along. Working in India with old books and manuscripts for as long as I have—10 years—can be stultifying. It was like breaking out of Tihar jail to go out on the road and work on Nine Lives. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Where did you find the fascinating people on whom the profiles in Nine Lives are based?
(Laughs) On the road mostly. Sometimes I bump into them myself. Sometimes people tell me about them. The Tibetan monk was a lead someone gave me at the Jaipur literary festival. So there is a little bit of providence in the way I get them.
Is this William Dalrymple’s Eastern spirituality book?
Yes, it is so clichéd, isn’t it? The Western guy who comes to India and suddenly discovers the meaning and purpose of religion in puffs of mystic smoke!
But I’ve lived here for 25 years now. So I am not exactly the amazed foreigner. And besides, my book is trying to talk about religion through biographies and lives. So I am not going to criticize or mysticize. Just say it as it is.
When does Nine Livescome out?
I am still interviewing and profiling. My idea is to profile 12 lives and then pick the best nine out of them. The book should be available by October. The devadasi profile can be read on the website of The New Yorker.
(Serving the Goddess can be read online at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/08/04/080804fa_fact_dalrymple)