Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India - William Dalrymple (3 stars)

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India - William Dalrymple

(Bloomsbury)

William Dalrymple’s publisher describes Nine Lives as his ‘first travel book in a decade’; this is rather misleading. Dalrymple’s own, contradictory phrase, ‘linked non-fiction stories’, is closer to the truth.

This collection is, in some respects, a conscious departure from the books Dalrymple wrote a decade ago and more. His acclaimed literary debut, In Xanadu (1989), was, he says, published at a time when
‘travel writing tended to highlight the narrator’: its subtitle, ‘A Quest’, suggests a focus on the act of exploring rather than the people encountered. ‘With Nine Lives,’ he writes in the Introduction, ‘I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.’

Large portions of the resulting nine stories read like interviews. The words of the interviewee are unadulterated and unironised, and the interviewer seems at times the mere facilitator of their remarkable
stories.

His subjects include a South Indian ‘devadasi’ (temple prostitute), a Buddhist monk who fought the Chinese invasion of Tibet and an illiterate Rajasthani goat heard who sings – and keeps alive – a 4,000-line sacred epic. They represent the religious pluralism and geographical diversity of the Subcontinent, yet they all live in the parts ‘suspended between modernity and tradition’ and their ways of dealing with the threat of modernisation have much in common. These are neither the drivers nor the benefitters of India's economic 'boom' and it is from their persepctive that it is presented.

The ‘Modern India’ of the book’s subtitle duly forms the backdrop not the focus of the opening story, ‘The Nun’s Tale’. The threat to this Jain nun Mataji’s life comes not from outside – from the changing
nature of her society – but from within. Mataji tells of the death of her sole companion, Prayogamati, with whom she walked the roads of India for the duration of her life as a nun in the pursuit of enlightenment, having renounced all possessions but an unstitched white sari. On being diagnosed with TB, Prayogamati decided to embrace ‘sallekhana’ (self-starvation regarded by Jains as the final renouncement and beginning of the next life). Mataji struggles with the demands of Jainism against human attachment: ‘When I realised [Prayogamati] had left, I wept bitterly. We are not supposed to do this, and our guruji frowned on me. But I couldn’t help myself. I had followed the steps correctly until she passed away, but then everything I had bottled up came pouring out. Her body was still there but she wasn’t in it. It was no longer her.’

Mataji speaks not in the conscious, styled voice of a writer but in a voice that is believably hers. There is a certain eloquence in her plain sentences, but readers who enjoyed Dalrymple’s take on, for example, the 'Essex man from the East' his Punjabi taxi driver Balvinder Singh in his 1993 book City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi will find little of the same wit here.

Still, around these nine quasi-monologues is set the evocative description and lively historical exposition for which Dalrymple is famous. ‘The Monk’s Tale’ is set in the Himalayan town of McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama and ‘the place to which countless displaced lamas and landowners, refugee peasants and farmers, exiled townsmen and traders, have made their way, clustering like barnacles on a rock a round the temple residence of the Dalai Lama.’ Below is the Kangra Valley, ‘where the hilltops emerge from the flat blanket of winter morning mist like humps of a school of whales rising from the deep.’ In brief passages like these Dalrymple shows he can still summon a scene.

Nine Lives is not ‘vintage’ Dalrymple but it is a brave and, for the most part, engaging departure from the format and style of his work so far. In this updated kind of 'travel writing', the egocentric gives way to the anthropological: Dalrymple does not record his journeys between his subjects' diverse homes - indeed they are not even part of the same trip - but focuses on on the ways their faiths inform their daily lives. The result is mature and self-effacing yet lacking the presence of the jovial writer-figure which the readers of his previous travel books so enjoyed. For pages at a time one might forget about the writer altogether, until, that is, some passing comment made by his interviewee: ‘I was very scared as he was very hefty, very fat,’ says the temple protitute Rani Bai of a client, ‘Much fatter even than you.’ In a book remarkable for its author’s very absence, such moments confirm that his ear for the comic is still there – perhaps just lying in waiting.

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