June 04, 2012 00:00 By Jitendra Nath Misra
A touching, cinematic journey among India's holy men and the different gods they heed
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
By William Dalrymple
Published by Bloomsbury, 2009
Available at leading bookshops Reviewed by Jitendra Nath Misra
To review a book when the author’s fame lurks on its every page is arduous. How can we sidestep his persona, and make a doubter’s assessment? Maybe it’s better to treat the book as an object, like a chair, and not as a work of art. Rather than seeking a superman perfection in the work, we’re better off allowing it to tell its story.
With this in mind I vowed to ignore preconceptions as I read William Dalrymple’s “Nine Lives”. But the title rekindled an old dread, reminding me how a supposedly exotic and spiritual India has been used by Western authors as a trope to confirm the superiority of the rational and material West.
The book, however, became so enchanting that such quibbles sunk. I was sucked into its brilliance and forsook my prejudices swiftly. Each journey became a poignant story, and each place’s description cinematic. Consider the Rajasthan landscape: “a white, sun-leached expanse of dry desert plains, spiky acacia bushes and wind-blown camel thorn”.
In this affecting work, it’s their material and familial situation that drives the nine individuals to an alternate reality. Ajay Kumar Jha, who has an MBA, becomes a naked sadhu. Prasannamati Mataji, the Jain nun born as Rekha into a wealthy merchant family, is ordained into Jain monkhood. Hari Das, the low- caste day labourer, transforms into a theyyam dancer at night, his Brahmin oppressors laying prostrate before him in worship. The Tibetan monk Tashi Passang turns to a life of making prayer flags, to atone for the violence he had once advocated.
The chapter “The Nun’s Tale” is transcendental, while also illustrating Jainism’s extreme forms of piety. Thus Mataji, to become a true nun, has her hair plucked from her head in a blood-splattering process, rather than having it shaved: “As wanderers, we monks and nuns are free of shadows from the past.” Forgetting her vows, Mataji cries at her best friend Prayogamati’s sallekhana, the slow fast unto death.
The same human frailty is manifest in the story of the prostitute Rani Bai, a devadasi dedicated to the goddess Yellamma. Rani Bai actually believes her profession is a sacred calling. But in a profane twist, she sends her daughters into prostitution, knowing the perils of her own wasting life. The daughters die of Aids, and she herself contracts the HIV virus. For all her wrong choices, Rani Bai is not tarnished, because humans are wired to make heroes of victims.
More redeeming is the story of Mohan, the bhopa singer, who keeps alive an oral tradition of storytelling passed down for generations. Similarly, Srikanda, the maker of Chola bronzes, shows an intense faith, in his belief that the idols acquire a divine persona over time.
Dalrymple explains that, instead of writing the conventional travel book, where the story is the writer’s, he chose to let the subjects take centre stage. This works beautifully. We have long passages where the protagonists talk, the author rarely interjecting. But even if this creates novelistic characters, Dalrymple is still writing about spiritual experiences. Why, then, does he criticise those who write about India’s spirituality?
There are other questions too. Is renunciation necessary for spiritual clarity? To what use should we put our piety? Is Lal Peri, who suffers multiple dislocations – as a Bihari Muslim refugee in East Pakistan, as a Bihari who leaves Bangladesh for Pakistan, and finally, as a woman who leads a single woman’s life in a Sufi shrine – a victim, or a seeker of solace? From such personal questions Dalrymple contrives tussles between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, etching the complex relationship between Hinduism, Sufi Islam and orthodox Islam.
There are long explanations of the philosophical tenets of Jainism, the Devadasi system, or the early Britons in Kerala, who rest “in their domed classical tombs on the headland above the breakers”. The chapter “The Maker of Idols” provides an analysis of Chola civilisation and its sculpture: “In Western art, few sculptors – other than perhaps Donatello or Rodin – have achieved the pure essence of sensuality so spectacularly evoked by the Chola sculptors.” Here, the author’s voice speaks more than the subject’s.
There is the bizarre Tantrik journey of Manisha Ma Bhairavi: “Before you drink from a skull, you must find the right corpse.” Dalrymple narrates the history of Tantrism, the enduring cult that began in early medieval India, an alchemy of yoga, magic, metaphysics and philosophy. The last chapter, “The Song of the Blind Minstrel”, is on Bengal’s Baul singers, another group of wanderers.
True, Indian spirituality is not confected, but it is connected to distress, which is a material condition. This is clear from the stories of these men and women, picked from the far corners of India and Pakistan. Each story is an intense revelation, a kind of spiritual romp. For Westerners, what sets India apart are the magical cults Dalrymple describes, which disappeared in Europe after the Middle Ages. Therefore, for them, this book is a magnet to a lost past. But is India’s spirituality unique, or are Indians getting on, much like others?
Jitendra Nath Misra is an Indian Foreign Service officer, most recently ambassador to Laos. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the government of India.