William Dalrymple tells lucid tales of religious calling but fails to explain why they called him
Detachment is is often a cup of ecstasy in India. Whether Sufi fakir or devadasi or theyyam dancer, most of William Dalrymple’s mystics retain a strong sense of fatalism. In his new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, Dalrymple narrates the stories of nine lives of religious calling. What’s unusual about these nine souls is their intense commitment to continuing a traditional form of local devotion.
A Jain nun helps her closest friend fast unto death and is disturbed by her subsequent feelings of loss. A Buddhist monk tries to atone for the violence he committed in resisting the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A devadasi who resented her parents for pushing her into prostitution initiates her own daughters into the trade and sees both die of AIDS.
Dalrymple sketches each profile with succinct historical context, explaining why the Jains consider fasting to death to be their highest goal or how the devadasis’ status has dropped due to modern social reform. He’s mainly interested in what the person practices, how they came to such a way of life and how its continuation extrapolates in a modernising world. Many of his subjects are apprehensive about how their particular sacred extremity will live on after them.
What Dalrymple declines to do is provide his own position on a subject’s practice and fate. For, contrary to the blurb, this is not a travel book. It does travel to different parts of India in its search, but its subject remains close to the profiled individuals rather than any larger understanding of their phenomenon. Dalrymple says in his introduction, “…with each of the characters telling his or her story, and only the frame created by the narrator, I hope to have avoided many of the clichés about ‘Mystic India’ that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.” But without a strong authorial voice that holds the narrative together, the book at last seems incidental – it leaves you uncertain whether these people are merely the last flares of a dying culture or the hidden crinklings of its pagan endurance.
Rather, Nine Lives is a book about storytelling. Given the central voice accorded to each character, what comes across clearest is how people retell their lifestory towards a point where, when looking back in retrospect, they seem to have been more or less in control of their lives. The devadasi also has AIDS but will not acknowledge it. The idol maker, twenty-third in a long hereditary line and whose son will probably not follow his craft, sees how the age of computers trumps the age of the bronze caster – while the phad singer praises how his is a good life, safe in the knowledge of his son continuing the tradition.
Lack of scepticism does have its uses. In clear, simple telling, Dalrymple takes us to the beating heart of devotion within each story and validates its extreme impassiveness to the modern world, one cussed sip at a time.