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Friday, February 12, 2016

Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India

By William Dalrymple

Published by Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4. Hardcover, £20, pp. 284

[synopsis: Dalrymple has taken a close and sympathetic look at how some non-mainstream people are coping, through religion, with the violent changes that are sweeping through contemporary India. Nine people, located at different points in the sub-continent – one already dead of her own choice since being interviewed – tell him how their traditional faith and practices help, but they do not pretend that life is easy. This book is sure to compel even the well-informed reader to modify his or her views about what really is happening to India, and perhaps make us worry.]

India is in the throes of massive and multi-dimensional socio-economic change. That has already – in some circles at least – become cliché. Also, a lot of people are determined to call this change unqualified progress, a clear sign that India is poised to take her ‘rightful’ position at the world’s high table soon. They make it sound as though everything about India, until very recently, was merely shameful or pitiable; there was no culture before Shahrukh, no technology before IT, no wealthy men before the Ambanis, no philosopher before Nandan Nilekani, and it is only since Manmohan Singh launched his programme of reforms in 1991 – before which there was no history either! – that things started changing suddenly and swiftly for the better. At the same time, a lot of people (myself included) keep pointing out again and again that many things both good and bad about India don’t ever seem to change at all, and that it is blind and silly to claim that every aspect of the currently ongoing change ought to be called progress of a sensible kind. When I read books like Jim Corbett’s My India, written 57 years ago, for instance, I sigh to think where all those proud, hardy, diversely-learned, simple and good folks have vanished – or did they only exist only in Corbett’s imagination?

In Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India, published earlier this year, William Dalrymple of White Mughals and The Last Mughal fame says that if you care to look beyond the neon signs of snazzy and burgeoning metros, some of that India still survives, though maybe more doubtfully than in the past. Instead of poring over historical archives, he has, for a change, dived into the maelstrom of India’s roads to pick out a few non-mainstream (but still quintessentially Indian) people and find out what they have been doing with their lives – a Jain nun calmly starving herself to death in the time-honoured way, a teller of folk tales in Rajasthan who keeps thousands of pages by heart, a builder of idols in Tamil Nadu who has been keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, a female sufi practitioner from Bihar who has settled at a shrine in Pakistan, a devadasi whose lot is now much worse since government made the custom illegal, a blind baul at the great mela at Kenduli, West Bengal … nine of them in all, nine highly-skilled, highly interesting people who are struggling to live life and even enjoy it and contribute meaningfully to it without being swallowed by the postmodern-urban-consumerist-passive-apolitical-technodrunk monoculture.

As Dalrymple says in the introduction, the urge to know such people was born in him one day during a trek to the shrine of Kedarnath, when he found out that the naked sadhu who was walking beside him was the son of a well-off politician, an MBA and a marketing manager with a well-known consumer electricals firm in Delhi till only a few years ago. While trying to get under their skins and find out what makes them tick, he has been neither patronizing nor judgmental: he has allowed them, as far as possible, to tell their own stories and justify their existence in their own eyes. And that is precisely what makes the book both readable and disturbing. These characters, for all their strength and adaptability, for all their esoteric skills, can no longer be happy or even at peace, free to live their lives their own way… they are all, like so many birds and beasts, threatened by the bulldozer of ‘development’ and in danger of becoming extinct. The devadasi has got AIDS, the tantrik has been prohibited from giving interviews by his ‘scientifically-educated’ offspring because they find him an embarrassment in their professional circles, the bhopa is chagrined to find that the literate young can no longer memorise tomes, the idol-maker is sad that the lure of easy money has made his son long to become (yet another!) computer programmer, the dalit theyyam dancer who becomes a god for a few days when he is possessed spends the rest of the year digging wells and guarding a prison full of psychopaths for a pittance, and the red fairy will probably be swallowed and crushed soon by the onrushing tide of the Taliban sweeping across Pakistan, who want to cleanse their faith by purging it of heretics who sing and dance and preach an easy universal benevolence…

I have read biologists and environmentalists lamenting that, thanks to rapid and rampant deforestation, we are losing thousands of species of wild flora every year, and very soon the world will be a much poorer place, because we shall have lost so many forms of life whose great utility (as in making medicines) we never had time to explore. Reading this book gave me the feeling (the same feeling I had when I was reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Art of Dreaming, and while watching the movie titled Australia) that the human world is also losing too much of its rich diversity too fast, and it will live to regret it – or, worse still, it won’t. While the UN, I hear, is trying to collect and preserve the traditional skills and wisdom of myriad indigenous peoples around the world, we in India (which, among other things, has the largest and most diverse tribal population in the world), are doing our best to wipe them out, with threats, oppression, neglect, exploitation and blandishments – the siren song of the laid-back, high-on-consumption-low-on-thought culture that is likely to produce such horror scenarios as portrayed in movies like Matrix and Wall-E. And, most disappointing of all, so many of the best ‘educated’ Indians are unconcerned; they find all knowledge of their own peoples and traditional ways ‘backdated’ and ‘uncool’ without ever having tried to find out! I don’t know how many foreigners will read Dalrymple’s work, but I hope a lot of Indians do, and feel ashamed, and go out and meet and learn about some of their fellow-Indians who are not like them, but perhaps better, cleverer, more talented people, even if they cannot write software or manipulate the stock-market and grow fat on bribes in government jobs. And I wish some Indian writers would follow in Dalrymple’s footsteps, rather than in Chetan Bhagat’s.

Postscript: It seems some intellectual types in India are trashing the book as yet another western attempt to stereotype Indian exotica, to portray us in a poor light. I doubt whether such folks have taken the trouble to read the book. They are the same types who criticized Pather Panchali and Slumdog Millionaire for the same reasons, and they believe that we can be proud only to the extent that we can clone all things western (or, more specifically, American) … though I notice that they are not as keen to take over the American attitude to work, and punctuality, and good manners in public, and fondness for museums and libraries, and concern for the cleanliness and beauty of their physical surroundings as they are keen on more Macdonald’s outlets and mobiles and big cars and bigger bombs to bash our neighbours with. India can do better without their wisdom. All I shall tell my readers is, read the book and make up your own minds.

 I reviewed this book shortly after it was published for culturazzi.org at their invitation. Their website seems to have gone phut. I thought I'd post it here for the record.  The book is now available much more cheaply in a paperback edition. Read it.

Dalrymple sent me a thank-you note by email too:


to me
Suvro, it's a lovely and perceptive review-- thanks very much indeed. As you note at the end, there have been some slightly bizarre reviews, and it's great to know there are also some appreciative and perceptive readers out there!

Keep well and thanks again,

Sent from BlackBerry® on Airtel

1 comment:

Rajdeep said...

That's a most wonderful book review. Awesome the first time I read it, most humane the second time, and this time, like vintage wine that leaves a lingering taste. I hope it is republished in some newspaper.
Hope you are doing well. Best wishes.