William Dalrymple’s new book about people of faith in modern India fulfills the premise that a master artist can make something very difficult look easy. The transparent prose in Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India reminded me of the great American nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder’s work — not because the two authors are stylistically similar, but because they both excel in distilling complex material into a narrative that anyone reasonably literate can understand and appreciate.
Dalrymple, a Scotsman, started out as a travel writer, then veered into history. The author of The Age of Kali, White Mughals and The Last Mughal has won a fistful of travel- and history-writing prizes and today lives part-time in New Delhi. With Nine Lives he returns to the travel-writing form, but every page of Nine Lives is infused with Dalrymple’s years of labor in the vineyards of political, historical and religious research.
Nine Lives collects nine stories, each of a religious worshipper — many of modest (lower-caste) backgrounds in locales far from the booming urban centers of contemporary India. They include a nun of the ancient Jain religion; a woman who practices a form of religion-tinged prostitution; a maker of bronze statues of Hindu gods, a man of the 23rd generation in his family to fulfill a tradition that’s been going on for 700 years.
Some stories are tragic, including that of Tashi Passang, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who, during the Chinese invasion of Tibet, renounced his vows and took up arms after Chinese soldiers beat his mother so severely she eventually died. He has spent years atoning for his decision to become, for a time, a military man who killed people, and has struggled to vanquish his hatred for the Chinese. Passang eventually became a monk again: “I was always a monk in my heart — it was just that sometimes my duty led elsewhere,” he said.
Other chapters illustrate the clash between ancient and modern that roils this part of the world today. In “The Singer of Epics”, readers learn the story of Mohan Bhopa, one of the last bards of “The Epic of Pabuji”, a 4,000-line poem that Mohan knows by heart and that “takes a full five nights of eight-hour, dusk-till-dawn performances to unfold.” Literacy is actually killing off this tradition, Dalrymple suggests; only the illiterate seem to have the brain capacity to absorb and remember these magnificent relics of oral history.
“The Red Fairy” centers on Lal Peri Mastani, a lady fakir (holy person) who lives in a Sufi temple in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. This locus for an embracing form of Islam is being threatened by severe Wahhabi Islam, whose practitioners condemn Sufis as idol worshippers. The Wahhabis have started a madrassa (school for young people) in the area and hope to lure children and teenagers away from the Sufi tradition.
“At the moment only the poor will send their children to us, and then only because we feed them,” says the Wahhabi schoolmaster. “… If we can get children away from their homes to board here with us we can influence them more thoroughly.” Today, Dalrymple writes, there are “twenty-seven times as many madrassas in Pakistan as there were in 1947”; from 245 to 8,000.
The devotees of Nine Lives lead lives that, in their sincerity and simplicity, many Westerners could take a page from. Dalrymple mostly stands back and lets these people tell their own stories, filling in the background with his knowledge of India’s history and culture and his painterly way with detail. Some might call the extremes of devotion he chronicles a kind of divine madness, but even skeptical readers will be hard-pressed to ignore the great comfort and inspiration these practitioners of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam take from their daily worship.
You don’t have to know a thing about India to enjoy this book, but when you’re done you will know and appreciate much more about its people and their various lives — of the body, of the spirit and of the heart.