Nine Lives by William Dalrymple is a book that doesn’t need a review, it only needs to be devoured into. In search of the sacred in modern India, Dalrymple has written a masterpiece in the world of travel writing. After reading Nine Lives, my bucket list has now places that are still unknown to many.
What I love about William is that all the books he has written over the time, he never mocks his subjects. He is tender in his approach, understanding each and every aspect and then narrates for people like me who do not get to travel much. In Nine Lives, his work reveals that India is still rich when it comes to religion and spirituality. Many people who practice religion have another side as well, something which we might not come across in our daily lives.
Nine Lives opens to A Nun’s Tale, the tale of Prasannmati Mataji, a Jain nun. Her practice bans any kind of attachment. But then she has developed attachment for her companion, her friend who traveled with her for 20 years and passed away. She wants to observe “Sallekhana” so that she can bid goodbye to her life on earth, and join her friend. She shares her story that how a regular girl felt inclined towards turning into a monk, how she plucked her hair from the roots, how she cannot walk during monsoon so that she doesn’t hurt living beings, embracing Three Jewels; Right Knowledge, Right Faith, and Right Conduct. You also come across a Monk who gave up his vow to save his homeland. Tashi Passang gave up his Monk vows when China started encroaching in Tibet, taking away the peaceful homeland. Tashi shares how he joined army and killed many to save his land and people, something which is not allowed when you are a Buddhist monk. How his mother was tortured, and eventually died. And now settled in Dharamshala, he has taken his vows again. But longing for homeland doesn’t go away.
There is Red Fairy, Lal Peri who dances her heart out, is always dressed in bright red, is fat, and carries a huge wooden club at the shrine of Sehwan, Sindh. She shares her story, that how a girl from Bihar ran away to become Lal Peri, Malang and living in the ways of Qalandar. Free, happy and spiritful. You get to travel to Pabusar, Rajasthan, a land where Mohan Bapa along with his family sings the great Rajasthani medieval poem, “The Epic of Pabuji”. Completely illiterate, but they are the two of the last hereditary singers who can read from the Phad and explain the meaning to others. You also get to meet The Lady Twilight, Manisha Ma Bhairavi from Tarapith, Calcutta. Manisha Ma Bhairavi worships Tara Ma, who is a famous Goddess for tantric rituals. Though many people despise the practice, but secretly they all sacrifice a goat or two to make their deepest darkest wishes come true.
For 5 days I was lost in the unknown lands mentioned in Nine Lives, and it was worth it. The more I read it, the more I fell in love with Dalrymple’s writing. These days sections of travel books in a bookstore don’t have the real travel books, they have guides to visit a place. But Nine Lives is a travelogue that you simply cannot miss. A long read but an amazing one! Some of the Dalrymple’s subjects have shielded themselves from the change, but some of them have adopted it. Like Theyyam Dancer Hari Das, who is a Dalit, an untouchable. But he is widely respected when he dances like a God during Theyyam performances, even by the most pious upper-class Brahmins. He understands that his art is getting lost in the modern time, so he maintains his livelihood by working as a well-digger and a Jailer. Just Like Hari Das, there are Devadasis, who are suffering from the change, but still want to continue their practice. Once considered as God’s women, now their status has been reduced to working as prostitutes or servants. The majority of them are dying due to AIDS.
The most amazing thing about Nine Lives is the happiness these subjects portray. No matter how much flak they receive from the society or changing times, they still don’t want to abandon their devotion. It is like water for their parched soul, a necessity and not just means of earning money or respect in the society. While they are reminiscing about the older times when their practices were followed by many, a little hope still dances in their eyes that the coming generation might keep the spirituality alive in their lands.
All in all, Nine Lives is a book that you cannot miss. It’s a different kind of magic that will take you to places unknown.