An abused wife who abandons her daughters for a skullfilled home; a wealthy girl who renounces her family to pluck each hair from her head; a Buddhist monk who gives up his vows to take up a rifle and revolt—these are some of the characters in William Dalrymple’s new book, Nine Lives.
On the fringe: One of Dalrymple’s stories is about Theyyam dancers. Dinodia
Never one to shy away from associating himself with historical figures, Dalrymple fashions himself as a modern-day Geoffrey Chaucer, writing an Indianized version of The Canterbury Tales. Just as Chaucer depicts 14th century British life through religious pilgrims, Dalrymple distils some of the societal clashes of modern India through the prism of the spiritual awakenings of nine people.
As with his other books, Dalrymple has a sensitive eye for his subjects and he travels to corners of India often left unnoticed. But unlike his earlier writings, here he stays largely outside the book. In the introduction, he writes that he “tried to invert” the common practice of travel writing in which the narrator figures predominately. The voices in the book are not Dalrymple’s, but the nun’s, the Baul’s, or the monk’s. It is a compelling, respectful technique, empowering the subjects by making them their own narrators. By giving the well-digger, the prostitute and the Muslim refugee a voice, Dalrymple dignifies them and their spiritual quests.
He also “inverts” the tendency of the Westerner to seek spiritual salvation in India. The writer undergoes no profound enlightenment or transcendental leap, at least not one we need to read about. But his characters do and the reader is left to take from it whatever lesson he wants—spiritual or historical.
Nine Lives: Penguin India, 304 pages, Rs499.
One of the most intriguing parts of the book is one that delves into the reality in which these characters are embedded. They are marginalized by society not only because of their caste or religious choices, but also because urban society tries to downplay the eccentricities of religion, even while practising them. “Our local Communist MP may tell his followers that what we do is superstition, but that doesn’t stop him coming here with a goat to sacrifice when he wants to find out from us what the election results will be,” says Manisha Ma Bhairvari, one of the characters who lives at the cremation ground at Tarapith in West Bengal. After leaving her abusive husband and two daughters, she had a vision to go to Tarapith and take a lover. There, the couple sacrifices goats, collects skulls and avoids the government “Anti-Superstition Committees” that attempt to push their religion out of Bengal.
Hers is not the only religious practice at risk. The Taliban tries to repress Sufism in Pakistan. The Theyyam dancers of Karnataka have trained their sons in the ancient art, but the sons have grown up to join the military and the police force. And the jobs do not allow three-month leave for dance practice.
Even worse, some of these practices are literally dying out. In one chapter, Dalrymple writes about a daughter of Yellama, who previously appeared in the book Aids Sutra, produced by the Gates Foundation. The article followed Rani Bai as she visited the temple of Yellama, and told the passive observer Dalrymple about being born as a farm girl, being sold as a virgin at the age of 14, working in Mumbai as a prostitute, losing her daughters to AIDS, and hoping to buy a bull in the future. It’s an intimate portrait of a woman whose religion may ultimately kill her.
While the tales differ in detail, the stories do blur into similar sounds, colours and scents because the people share one compelling characteristic: They believe in something. That belief, in whatever manifestation, makes this book something to linger over, for as Dalrymple puts it, belief is “an increasing oddity, a mis-weave in the weft of things”.