Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern



Kipling, best-known of all the chroniclers of Empire, wrote when India was
still the largest jewel in the British crown, “Oh, East is East and West is
West and never the twain shall meet.” Having read this fascinating book I am
inclined to agree with him. William Dalrymple, a modern-day writer and observer
of India, who lives outside Delhi, sets out to discover just what makes the
sub-continent still so different from the West – or, more accurately, the
“Anglosphere”. In this task he makes no judgments and comes to no conclusions;
he simply allows selected Indian voices speak for themselves.

From a
Western perspective India is the country which is soon to overtake Japan as the
third largest economy in the world. Yet only 20 minutes’ distance from the
Microsoft Indian headquarters cars have largely given way to camels and
bullocks, the immemorial form of transport. This discrepancy was further
highlighted for the author when he happened to meet up with a sanyasi (wanderer). To his surprise he
found that this man had an MBA and a high-flying career in marketing, yet chose
to give it all up to become a wandering, naked sadhu. He told Dalrymple he
could not face selling fridges any more so “I gave away my belongings to the
poor… threw away my suit, rubbed ash on my body and found a monastery.”

how common such a dramatic gesture might be, Dalrymple went in search of nine
different people who had either turned their backs on ordinary life, like the
sadhu referred to, or who had stayed loyal to an ancient familial or tribal
tradition of semi-mystical entertainment. Among them are a Jain nun, a dancer,
a temple prostitute, a hereditary singer of epics, a blind minstrel and a
craftsman of idols to be used for worship. Some, such as the dancer or the
temple prostitute, are from the poor, dalit (untouchable) caste so that it
could be argued that their calling gives them a social status they would not
otherwise have. This is not a sufficient answer. It would be more accurate to
say that they followed a family profession into a world they regard as at least
half-divine and which they believe gives a transcendental dimension to their

such as the Jain nun who chose to leave her loving family aged 14, have come
from a wealthy background, making their sacrifice appear the more
extraordinary. The Jain way of life is unbelievably ascetic to Western eyes:
homeless, forbidden to wash or beg for food and only possessing a small water
pot and peacock fan (to sweep the path before them so as not to inadvertently
kill a living insect). Yet Mataji, the nun questioned by the author, has no
regrets, regarding her life as the way to free her soul from earthly ties. She
describes the ultimate Jain practice of fasting until death, sallekhana, as a slow and joyful way to
abandon the body.  Whatever one
might think of it, it clearly has nothing to do with anorexia or a protest hunger

The dancer,
Hari Das, comes from a long line of theyyam dancers in Kannur. For nine months
of the year he works as a labourer and prison guard; for three months he
believes he is possessed by the god Vishnu while he dances. Dalrymple adds,
“The calm, slightly earnest and thoughtful man I knew… was changed into a
frenzied divine athlete.” He is not the only character interviewed who is
certain that during ritual occasions he is transformed into a vehicle of the
gods. Mohan, a hereditary singer of the Rajasthan medieval Epic of Pabuji, 4,000
lines long and 600 years old, asks “How can I perform unless the spirit comes?”
He is illiterate, and tells Dalrymple that it is this that gives him his
phenomenal memory; when the singers become literate so as to be able to read
their lines, they start to forget them.

One of the
saddest interviewees is the temple prostitute, Rani Bai, dedicated to the
goddess Yellamma as a child and then at puberty, effectively sold by her
poverty-stricken parents into temple sex slavery. She is quick to make a
distinction between her life and that of ordinary prostitutes, but the
difference seems minimal; if she doesn’t work she will starve and already, like
many of her kind, she is HIV-positive.

the sub-continent, Dalrymple visits a Tibetan monk at Dharamsala on the Tibetan
border, where the Dalai Lama now lives. This man, aged 74, who fled from the
Chinese along with the Dalai Lama in 1959, admits that “It is not easy to reach
the stage where you really remove the world from your heart”.  Later, down in Tamil Nadu, the author
meets a maker of idols from an ancient lineage of craftsmen, who believes that
if he follows the prescribed methods with care and reverence, the god or
goddess will enter the finished object. His son, to his obvious distress, wants
to break with this tradition and study computer engineering.

is a sympathetic listener, self-effacing and uncritical. His aim has been to
present the other side of India, the side alien to a Western secular
consciousness (and to millions of urban, educated Indians as well.) It is true
that the rites he observes usually survive in rural or remote areas, deeply
conservative parts of the country where ‘progress’ has not yet brought its
mixed, implacable benefits. Yet behind all the strange, mystical and inexplicable
phenomena is a hunger for the world of the spirit and recognition that the
material world is not the whole of life. Some in the West might mock these
interviewees and dismiss them as simple, uneducated and superstitious. Yet all
of them, literate or not, come across as eloquent about the purpose of their
lives and conveying an aura of quiet, reflective dignity. India remains the
East – but for how long?

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire,
in the UK.