Rarely does a travel writer efface himself so thoroughly as to let other voices speak as William Dalrymple does in Nine Lives. The Scottish writer introduces his narrators briefly, and then proceeds to pop his head in only at rare moments. In this, he diverges from the style of his earlier writings, which he describes as having highlighted himself and his own adventures. In this new work, we are presented with the spiritual (and mundane) biographies of nine seekers of truth from a wide range of religious traditions. Of course, out of the vast and intricate paths to truth that are explored in India, nine individuals represent necessarily a limited range, but Dalrymple has included stories from across Southasia, from Sindh to Lhasa to Tanjore. His seekers come from places, as he puts it, "suspended between tradition and modernity".
In offering a frame for his stories, Dalrymple wonders whether India offers any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism. After reading these substantial essays, readers would say that India offers every sort, from the sublime to the strange. In the introduction, for instance, Dalrymple describes a shrine formed around an Enfield Bullet motorbike that had originally been put up as a memorial to the bike's owner, who had died in a crash. Now the shrine attracts pilgrims, especially Rajasthani truck drivers, in search of miracles of fertility. Subsequent chapters contain the narratives of a Jain nun, a Keralite theyyam dancer, a Karnatakan devadasi, a Rajasthani singer of epics, a Sufi mystic, a Tibetan monk who spent his early years as a guerrilla fighter and soldier, an idol-maker from Tanjore in Tamil Nadu, a 'curer of skulls' and a blind Baul singer. Yet, throughout these varied narratives, the bike shrine remains an icon of what it means to search for the sacred in India. To any Indian, Dalrymple's subtitle is rich with ironies: There is little need to search for the sacred in India – we trip over it everywhere we go.
It is impossible to choose representative voices out of the vast range of India's seekers of the sacred; Dalrymple does not attempt to do so. In the introduction, he says that the book
as a collection of linked non-fiction short stories, with each life representing a different form of devotion, or a different religious path. Each life is intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India's metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape.
So the author is merely 'channelling' nine highly individual voices. Following on this, any review of such a collection must be even more modest in its attempt to choose chapters that represent the whole.
The Jain nun whose tale opens this collection does highlight the strange inconsistencies of many spiritual quests. Prasannamati Mataji, just 38 years old at the time of Dalrymple's interview, already has a long history of renunciation. She left her family at the age of 14, studied the scriptures, and committed herself to relentless self-denial. There is no irony in the author's description of Mataji eating her single meal of the day, but the scene is nonetheless heavy with contradictions. A meal is prepared with great care and served by a bevy of other initiates, all tutored in Mataji's slightest nods and shakes of the head, and fussing around to make sure that no insect has fallen in the rice. For her part, the renunciate sits on a stool raised on a wooden pallet and proceeds to eat over the space of an hour. In every society there are kingly rituals followed by those who have renounced the world, whether they are popes or shankaracharyas; thus, here too we have a nun rinsing her mouth out into a waiting spittoon, and blessing her attendants with a peacock fan at the end of the elaborate, daily ceremony.
Also unsettling is the mixture of creeds Mataji describes. There is no all-encompassing god in the nun's cosmological system, but to reinforce good behaviour and punish bad there are minor gods and asuras, and there is a hell. So we have a life of renunciation, introspection and study, but new delusions seem to be set up in place of the old. Attachment to humans is forbidden, but adherence to ritual practices is considered essential. The nun's story is not a smug one, though. There is real pain in her attachment to another nun with whom she had long travelled, and the eventual, long-drawn-out death of that nun. "When I realised she had left," recounts Mataji, "I wept bitterly. We are not supposed to do this, and our guruji frowned at me. But I couldn't help myself. I had followed all the steps correctly until she passed away, but then everything I had bottled up came pouring out." Many of Dalrymple's seekers substitute a new set of apparently arbitrary rituals for the structure of their earlier, secular lives. Much of Mataji's story, for instance, leaves an impression of busy emptiness, but her account of her struggle to root out her love of a fellow human is harrowing.
The theyyam dancers of Kerala, meanwhile, attempt to make god into flesh. That is the audacious aim of their art and ritual, in which a man is painted so thickly as to obscure his humanity. Once he is dressed and made up, he looks into a mirror and leaps into an alternative consciousness, becoming the goddess in both his own mind and those who worship through this dance. Of course, the worshippers are limited by their own world views, praying to the goddess for a good job or some other material improvement in their lives. It is known, they say, that the theyyam performance can stop an epidemic.
But there is more going on here. The dances are performed by Dalits, and the stories they enact are subversive and critical of caste injustices; the performances thus have acted as a safety valve, through which the wrongs of Dalits have been expressed ritually though without truly transforming society. But the dancer himself is indeed transformed, at least for a brief time. Though the dancer with whom Dalrymple talks says that he cannot remember what happens during his dance, he is clear that he experiences divinity. "The light stays with you all through the performance," he says. "You become the deity. You lose all fear. Even your voice changes. The god comes alive and takes over … The dancer is an ordinary man, but this being is divine." This sentiment is somewhat similar to that expressed by a Sufi dancer in a later chapter.
On the other hand, the narrative of Passang, a Tibetan monk, is as much historical as spiritual. Passang set aside his vows in order to fight the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and the ill-matched battles are particularly poignant seen from his perspective. After several years in exile, Passang joined the Indian Army, in a fever to restore his homeland. Instead, he ended up fighting the Pakistanis during the 1971 war in what is now Bangladesh. It proved difficult to leave the army once he joined, however, and he was forced to finish his service, though increasingly troubled by the violence in which he was compelled to participate. Once he did leave, Passang went to Dharamsala to atone for the lives he had struck down. At first, the work that he does – the printing of prayer flags – seemed rather futile. How can such a ritual atone for what he regarded as sins? But Passang renews his monastic vows, and there begins his real journey to overcome the karma of his life as a soldier. He embraces his old age and coming death, using his time to meditate and study. Impressively, he says that he no longer hates the Chinese – perhaps a true spiritual achievement. In his new renunciation, he always remembers community: Although he can return to his brother's house in Tibet, he wants to wait until the exile of all Tibetans comes to an end. "I have always felt that all of us fled together," he says, "and I should wait until a time came when we could all go back together."
The last two essays are closely connected. The first is the story of Manisha Ma Bhairavi and her cremation-ground community of curers of skulls, who sacrifice goats, drink blood, have fits and trances, and hold rites involving sex, alcohol and drugs. There are Tantric explanations for all of this, dealing with enlightenment through transgression, but to this reviewer it looked like plain madness.
The second story leads directly from the first, but it takes us from darkness to light. Dalrymple introduces the Bauls of Bengal as singing philosophers who practise "near-atheism and humanism". He anchors this non-creed in the Rig Veda, quoting one of its most challenging, radical and certainly most memorable lines: "The one who looks down on it from the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know." The blind minstrel Kanai Das Baul proceeds to tell a tale of wandering, seeking and loving. The Bauls too are subversive, teaching through song and seizing the mind through emotion rather than by the slow process of reason. In this, they use the unmatched power of the human sexual urge to catapult the mind into divinity. God, they say, is to be found in the human heart, and what the Bauls do is keep the heart alive. As indeed do all nine of Dalrymple's seekers.
~ Rukmini Krishnan is a writer in Madras.