Two wandering holy men walk past quietly. A cockatoo makes some noise and then settles down. Goats nibble at the grass; a dog barks at outsiders; then caresses the hand of the master. The rays of a late afternoon sun, still warm in mid-October, slant through thick foliage, forming a pleasant criss-cross of light and shade. Amidst all this sits William Dalrymple, happy to smile, happier to laugh. At ease with his work, passionate about his subjects, Dalrymple is like a river in spate when he talks about his new book, “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India”. No full stops, hardly any pauses. The book just happened, he says. That it took some 16 years for the “seed” to reach “fruition” is another matter!

Of course, in the land of sadhus and Sufis, he did not have to go searching for the sacred. Sitting in Gadaipur Farm on the edge of the richest part of Delhi, a couple of kilometres from the world of Google and Microsoft in neighbouring Gurgaon, and a few more from the world of camel carts and women with veils on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, the contradiction does not surprise him. “Here the sacred, the profane and the mundane merge. You can find the sacred in the mundane, in the profane. This book is essentially about how religion is changing in changing India, yet how it is the same. There is a peaceful coexistence of seemingly disparate elements, fluid and unpredictable.”

A non-fiction work

In the book, brought out by Bloomsbury, Dalrymple has talked to seemingly unrelated people, ranging from a devadasi to a nun, from Baul singers to Theyyam dancers. “It is not about my spiritual search or a Westerner’s for exotic India. It is a straightforward journalistic exercise where I have had the luxury of writing some 20,000 words! The seed for this idea was with me from way back in 1993 when I was on my way to the Himalayan temple of Kedarnath. Though I started working for this book only with the Yellama story I did for the “AIDS Sutra” book, this is a non-fiction work. The idea is to present human stories. I have attempted to humanise the exotic. For instance the tantrik and his wife who otherwise lead an ordinary middle class life. Or the prison warden from Kerala who is worshipped as a deity for two months a year, then returns to his jail! There are moments of humour. I have talked of two holy men playing as if in a concert. And two nuns being hosted by rich businessmen. There is a devadasi in her 30s who has her path to salvation. And a nun, roughly the same age, has a completely different path to the same destination.” If one woman bridges the gap between sin and the sacred, the other does so between self-denial and salvation.

Fascination for the Bauls

As Dalrymple talks on about the book, one abiding strand emerges: there is always a dash of Sufism in his work, and more than a dalliance with the Bauls. “I love the Bauls. Of all the forms, they are full of life. In fact, they are life enhancing. I quite empathise with their values. Above all, they see all religions as complementing and not in conflict with one another. I like their love for life, their ability to find joy, and an ability to create a raucous, happy environment.”

Does he find a reflection of his self in their music, in their life?

“Maybe, the raucous holy man in me,” he grins, then adds, “Similarly, I find Indian Sufism quite influenced by Hinduism. This is what I like about this country. As I travelled and met the characters for my book. I found it is not possible to compartmentalise life anymore. There are so many ways of being a Hindu, so many ways of being a Muslim or a Christian here. India continues to surprise me. The day India ceases to surprise me I might get bored. But I love the India that is changing from the time I first came 25 years ago. Besides economic development, new traditions are developing. They are not static.”

Indeed, just as “there are so many ways of being an Indian today”, there are soon going to be so many languages in which you can read Dalrymple’s latest pursuit of a paradox called India. The book is going to be translated into Malayalam, followed by Marathi, Urdu and Hindi. To each his own. And Dalrymple for all, may one add!

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