Friday, January 15, 2010

Book Review : Nine Lives (In Search of the Sacred in Modern India)

Author : William Dalrymple
Image source: Amazon

If you Believe it, it is God, otherwise it’s just a rock.

Nine lives - nine stories of faith and reliance. William Dalrymple is one of the greatest story tellers and travel writers of his generation. After having explored India for twenty-five years, he has wonderfully compiled extraordinary stories of nine individuals who are following different paths of faith in response to the spiritual calling and have deep conviction in what they follow. For people who have seen only the mainstream lifestyles it is very hard to imagine even the existence of such lives.

Other than India, nowhere else in the world, there is so much diversity in almost anything and everything ranging from the religions, languages, lifestyles, eating habits, dressing sense to almost every aspect of life.

A Jain nun trying hard to come out of the shackles of attachment. The attachment that she feels for her friend nun, who starved herself to death (as a part of final renouncement). Now she is on an apparently very difficult path of being a Sallekhana herself - which starts by first giving up home, then possessions and finally the body itself.

A prison warden, who feels proud to be a Thyyam dancer for two months in a year and keeps looking forward to these two months the rest of the year. During those Thyyam dance performances people take him to be an incarnate of deity and worship him.

The daughters of Goddess Yellamma called Devdasis who think it is destined for them to be a temple prostitute. A life story of one such Devdasi who was forcibly pushed into this profession but now she is doing the same to her daughters as she feels it is the call of their sacred faith.

A Tibetan Buddist monk, who very early in his life saw the true purpose of his life and left everything behind to follow his faith. During the period of Chinese invasion in Tibet, he takes up arms inspite of the non-violence preached by Buddha and now while still in exile in India, he is trying to atone for the sins that he had to commit to save his homeland. Still praying and hoping that he breathes his last in his free homeland.

A woman after having left her family in Calcutta in search of the divine goddess – Tara, now lives as a Tantric in a remote cremation ground. She finds the love and satisfaction of her life in one of the most unexpected places of all.

All unique stories and detailed account of the lives of these individuals, starting from their early years and how they all decided to take up these unconventional paths have been presented by Dalrymple for the readers to enjoy. He very rightly points out that even though majority of parts of India are aggressively running forward in every field keeping pace with the rest of the world but some parts are still deceptively innocent and timeless.

The travel writings hold the attention of the readers only if they are treated with great enthusiasm by the writer so that readers feel like travelling to that part of the world and experiencing the same joy. I think William Dalrymple has successfully executed this part. I am sure in 25years that he spent travelling around and exploring India, he must have come across a lot more than what has been compiled in the book so he must be appreciated for the filtering that he did to bring the best for the readers.

Inclusion of some pictures of the regions of India from where he has selected the nine lives would have been an icing on the cake, as is rightly said - a picture speaks a thousand words.

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