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Updated: November 14, 2009 17:12 IST

Quest for the extraordinary

Parvathi Nayar
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Nine Lives is that rare collection of stories that encompass the mystical, the improbable and the quotidian.

“What changes and what remains the same?” This is the question that William Dalrymple poses, with specific regard to the plurality of religious faiths and paths practised in India; in Nine Lives, his latest book, he offers a necessarily partial yet deeply engaging answer. The new work also marks the Scottish-born, Delhi-based author's return to the genre of travel writing after a decade spent wandering through Indian geographies and histories, and the production of such acclaimed historical works as The Last Mughal.

The catalyst

Nine Lives is a result of all those travels in the Indian subcontinent that allowed his path to intersect with many less-travelled ones. One such encounter was with a young, naked, ash-smeared sadhu on a “clear, high Himalayan morning in the summer of 1993” on the way to the Kedarnath temple. Startlingly, the holy man turned out to have had a former life as Ajay Kumar Jha, owner of an MBA degree and a high-flying sales job in a Mumbai-based company.

This encounter proved to be the catalyst for Nine Lives, for it got Dalrymple thinking about how Indian faiths were surviving – or not – in a country that was altering with unimaginable rapidity. The answers he finds may be inextricably linked with his travels, but their power lies in the unusual protagonists. The stories of these lives so outside the experience of our urban-insulated urbanity - require little embellishment.

Nine Lives is a microcosm of India's dualities and contradictions, the extremities of compassion and violence. Where else would you find the story of a Dalit well-digger/jail warden, who becomes possessed by the village god during the two months in a year when he's a Theyyam dancer. At these times, his feet are reverentially touched by upper-caste Brahmins – who, in the other 10 months, would not allow him to even drink from the well he is digging for them.

Novel style

Then there is the strangely moving opening story of the Jain nun and the ritual of Sallekhana or fasting to death as a sacred way to escape this life of attachments and desires. No less extraordinary is the story of illiterate Mohan Bhopa, a rare hereditary Rajasthani singer, who performs from memory the 600-year-old, 4,000-line poem, ‘The Epic of Pabuji'. Much like the religious scrolls or phadsthat offer visual guideposts to Pabuji's poem but are not a linear narrative, Mohan's tale moves back and forth, between his own backstory, oral folklore traditions, Dalrymple's research into them, and the meetings between the singer and author.

The stories, thus, do not read as sharply etched profiles of the nine protagonists. Rather, each is a travelogue that is sometimes allowed to ramble, where the site of visitation and exploration is a person and a particular kind of faith.

Tragedy is bound up in many of the stories, whether it the encroachments of the Taliban threatening a Sufi shrine in Pakistan or the tale of Rani Bai, who was sold by her father when she was 14, “for Rs 500, a silk sari and a bag of millet”. She became a devadasi, a profession now regarded, at best, as a glorified prostitute. Equally under threat are traditional, religious skills: Srikanda Stpathy's family has been in the bronze idol business for nearly 700 years, but his son sees computers as the way of the future. As Srikanda says with wry poignancy, “as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.”

Religion is a potentially explosive topic in once-tolerant India. Many of the stories' protagonists live on the margins, and do not subscribe to what society terms acceptable. Intoxicants are taken to intensify a religious experience, possession by gods and demons is claimed, godly visions are said to be granted – but the narrator is neither horrified nor wonderstruck. Dalrymple avoids many minefields by making visible his own liberal, pluralistic outlook – and by refusing to pass moral judgement. While we might have liked a deeper insight into his viewpoint, nevertheless, this sense of reportage prevents the book from falling into the trap of exoticising India for a western reader.

Complex theme

Even to an Indian, there is much that is strange, a reminder of the complex patchwork quilt that is India. Nine Lives preserves for the future, many religious outlooks and ways of life under threat, whether due to a disease such as AIDS, or the rise of a fundamental power such as the Taliban, or simply the inexorable march of progress. And yet, in the present, as Dalrymple says, the “water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows.”

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