For the longest time I couldn’t understand people who read Non Fiction for fun. I couldn’t imagine getting lost for hours in anything that resembled real life too closely. But even then travel writing and history never classified as boring. How could they when they carried the potential of mystery, charm, and the idea that such fantastic magical things actually happened Once upon a time…!
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple happens to be one of those books that envelope its readers in a world that is both intriguing and unreal. Now add to that that it’s shocking because it is real. In this book William Dalrymple explores the impact of modernization on some of the religions in India, through the stories of nine people. As he mentions in the Introduction, the writer remains mostly in the background while allowing his interviewees and their stories to speak for themselves. The characters are not exoticized (I know because I didn’t roll my eyes once at the narrative). However, their stories are somewhat exotic.
In the first story, The Nun’s Tale, a Jain nun struggles to remain detached as her best friend starves herself according to ritual. The second story, The Dancer of Kannur, is about a Dalit (a low caste) man who’s worshipped as a deity once every year. This was one of the more exotic stories. The why may be a spoiler, so if you’d rather not know skip on to the next paragraph. Okay. This story involves possession by the deity during which time the protagonist drinks the blood of a chicken.
The third story, The Daughters of Yellama, talks about the temple prostitutes who are revered by a large number of people in Karnataka but also equally shamed and criminalized – sometimes by the same people.
The Singer of Epics was one of the stories I found most enchanting. It tells the story of a Rajasthani story teller and the oral epic’s struggle for survival.
The two other stories that I liked best in this collection were The Monk’s Tale and The Maker of Idols. In the Monk’s Tale, Tashi Passang tells us about his decision to break his vows as a monk and take up arms against the Chinese during their invasion into Tibet; the unbearable hatred; and the guilt that still remains with him for having taken part in such violence. He also tells us how he eventually overcame his anger and hatred. It was both touching and inspirational. (For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading about monks. In fact, I remember pouring over the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my Only Fiction phase).
The Maker of Idols relates to us the story of Srikanda Stpathy, a bronze caster. It was interesting to read about the rituals and requirements in creating an idol. I also found the dialogue amusing. It made the story seem more personal and because of that, heartwarming.
In brief, The Red Fairy explores Sufism and its rift with mainstream Islam. The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel talk about Tantra and Baul philosophy. Both philosophies diverge from mainstream Hinduism by embracing the taboos of orthodox religion and rejecting socially accepted norms and traditions.
Nine Lives is a fascinating study into how religion is a major part of our identity, especially because it helps define our values, beliefs and priorities. Keeping up with the times while still preserving what we believe is an important part of us seems to be the struggle of a traditional society. Reflecting on this, it seems that most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives with religion in a separate box. The world doesn’t have time for religion that is all pervasive – not unless it’s heavily tweaked.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought the narrative was fairly objective, but not so much that the stories were dry and harsh. I liked the snippets of history and brief descriptions given by the author. It felt very much like I was being shown a story rather than being told one. I don’t think this book will disappoint regardless of whether you’re interested in history, religion, people, good writing, or just a good story.
‘Still, every day, I pray to our family deity, Kamakshi Amman, to change his mind and preserve the lineage. I have even promised to renovate her temple if my prayers are answered. But I know that if my boy gets high marks he will certainly go off to Bangalore – and it looks as if he will do well in his exams. For some reason all the Brahmin boys do well in maths and computer exams. Maybe that’s in the blood too – after all we’ve been making calculations for astronomy for 5, 000 years.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Srikanda, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s all part of the world opening up. After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.’ – page 204 (The Maker of Idols)