Monday, November 30, 2009

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

Rajesh Singh

Ordinary people, extraordinary tales

How do you look for the sacred in modern India? One way is to seek out the contemporary religious-spiritual leaders who have impacted society and understand their strain of thought. The other is to delve into ancient texts to grasp the beginning of sacredness and its journey into the present. The third approach is to study the life and times of saints of an earlier era.

And there is a fourth one: get into the soul of the ordinary, unknown devotee who battles his way in life, facing challenges as may come across ordinary, unprivileged citizens – all the while refusing to let go of the God that guides him and clinging on to It in the most irrational manner. These are the people who have kept religion alive, and they are the subjects of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.

Dalrymple is by now an established Indophile and author of acclaimed books – fiction and non-fiction – on India. This is a travel book in the conventional sense and the journey he undertakes is to understand what makes religion tick in a country that is as materialistic as it is spiritual. It is a difficult task, to say the least, and the good thing is that the author does not make it more daunting by drowning himself in the swirling waters of religious complexities. Instead, he leaves it to the nine devotees that he meets to tell their tales – unencumbered and uncensored, except when he holds back the identity of a few for the sake of privacy. This ensures simplicity and innocence.

There is variety here. The author profiles a Devdasi, Jain nun, Dalit transformed into God, singer of epics, Buddhist monk, Sufi saint, maker of bronze temple-idols, blind minstrel and a woman tantric who has found abode at the cremation ghat.

These are ordinary devotees the world passes by without so much as giving a second look. Yet, their stories, as Dalrymple illustrates, are fabulous and at times sorrowful. They are of a heady mix of blind but endearing faith in Gods and Goddesses. The Dalit dancer, for example is ready to forget the pain of his social status for the few hours that he transforms into Lord Vishnu and has the upper caste at his beck and call.

Devdasi Rani Bai, dedicated to Goddess Yellamma and doomed to prostitution by way of a `religious tradition’ takes it philosophically. Her devotion to the Goddess perhaps helps her mitigate to an extent the suffering and indignity of the life she leads; a life that she dreams will end in peace and happiness. But as a doctor tells the author, the young and good-looking Devdasi is inflicted with HIV virus, and is unlikely to live long.

Manisha Ma’s (in `The Lady Twilight’) is perhaps the most touching of all lives that Dalrymple profiles in the book. Manisha Ma is a tantric who lives with the Doms at a cremation ground in West Bengal. The chapter begins with an ominous quote from her: “Before you drink from a skull, you must first find the right corpse.” Can this be a human being – and that too a woman – living in civilized society? But when she takes you into her world, you see a different woman; one who encountered hatred where love should have been, before she found peace and happiness at the cremation ground in the company of a good soul and the Doms. She collects skulls not as part of some cannibalistic ritual, but because she believes it helps her visualize the Goddess. “…. If you awake the skulls through sadhana, and tame their spirits, they will give you more power and help show you the path… They help you to invoke her and call her to you.”

Well, we do not know about that, but Nine Lives certainly calls upon the reader to embrace it.

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