India has long been an object of fascination for foreigners seeking spiritual enlightenment. At times this takes the form of a travel-show fixation with rituals performed along the Ganga river; sometimes it’s a pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala. But the country’s rapid economic development brings with it a question: Does the new India, with its feuding billionaires and mushrooming call centres offer a spiritual alternative to materialism? Or has it become, to quote the British writer William Dalrymple, “just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?”
In Nine Lives, Dalrymple sets out to answer this question by exploring the parts of India and Pakistan “suspended between modernity and tradition”. He quickly discovers that the demands of development often conflict with India’s age-old spiritual traditions. A sacred grove is challenged by the depredations of illegal loggers. A distinguished Tamil bronze caster, the 23rd in an unbroken family line going back to the 13th century, tries to persuade his son not to abandon the family tradition for the glamour of a job as a computer engineer in Bangalore.
In the end, Dalrymple comes to no firm conclusion. The traditions Nine Lives explores are often threatened. Yet, in their own way, they are also remarkably robust. Dalrymple finds the holy men of modern India preoccupied with the same questions that absorbed their ancient counterparts.
To his credit, despite venturing deep inside inherently exotic territory, Dalrymple pulls off the difficult task of not merely exoticizing India. In a lesser writer’s hands, the same material might have read like a retread of old colonial tropes about snake charmers and ascetics. The reader gets the sense that the author is driven more by an unquenchable curiosity about a country he loves than by a desire to dwell upon the incongruities—say, a sacred elephant stalled at a traffic light, or a temple where rats are worshipped as God—that strike the first-time visitor.
Nonetheless, too much regard for the times we live in—which demand Western sensitivity to Indian sensibilities—has its drawbacks. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance—a description of a dancer drinking blood from the neck of a freshly slaughtered chicken is particularly evocative—all in all Dalrymple’s India somehow feels less real than that evoked by V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux or the hero of Dalrymple’s youth, the peripatetic Bruce Chatwin. There’s something slightly abstracted about Dalrymple’s vision. It’s as though by glossing over India’s chaos, squalor and harshness he ends up leaching the landscape of its true colour.
There’s also something slightly dilettantish about the book’s subjects. Indeed, Nine Lives is more a snapshot of endangered cultures in a time of flux than a guide to the most significant religious currents shaping the subcontinent. When it comes to Hinduism, Dalrymple tends to dwell on the obscure and the marginal.
On Islam, Dalrymple’s omissions are even more puzzling. He barely touches upon the most important religious story in the region, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. You learn virtually nothing of the puritanical missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, the charismatic Mumbai-based televangelist Zakir Naik, or, even though he visits Pakistan, the religious warriors of the country’s North-West Frontier Province. When Dalrymple does touch upon fundamentalist Islam, briefly in one chapter, it’s with the utmost delicacy, refracted through the story of a female dervish in the backwater Pakistani province of Sindh.
Despite these flaws, Dalrymple’s work reveals an India still rich in religious experience, its spiritual quest—or rather, quests—still very much part of the warp and weft of daily life. Amid all the excitement about economic growth, an older India endures.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Sadanand Dhume is a Washington- and New Delhi-based writer. Comment at email@example.com