To say I’ve had a long-term love affair with India doesn’t quite capture it. My relationship to the country is less like a love affair than a woman’s crush on a gorgeous, mysterious, and slightly dangerous stranger. I know people so captivated by the place, they’ve made it their life’s goal to try to understand it. I’ve also known people who’ve detested it so much they couldn’t get away fast enough. Personally, I’ve veered back and forth between those two extremes since the first time I crossed the border from Pakistan in 1977. After my first year in India, I came home so bruised and exhausted I swore I’d never return. Three weeks later, I was planning my second trip.
India is a place you can’t talk about without contradicting yourself. For example, I have sometimes found myself correcting the impressions of people who imagine it to be a land shrouded in mysterious rituals or populated with blissed-out yogis doing “tree” poses by the Ganges. Then I have to stop myself because, in some ways, it is that place, even while it is, at the same time, a land of tech-savvy young urbanites, poverty-stricken slumdwellers, and everything in between.
It would take a writer with the observational skills of a brilliant journalist and the eloquence of a master essayist to explore the complex concoction of philosophical ideas, myths, traditions, and beliefs that is Indian spirituality. And that’s exactly what we have in William Dalrymple. In Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, Dalrymple presents a mosaic of nine people whose experiences represent vastly different facets of Indian religious life. A Jain nun from a privileged background chooses a life of shocking austerity. A dalit—“untouchable”—man, reviled by upper caste Hindus in his regular life, is honored as a god incarnate when he dances. Minstrels wander unfamiliar roads, singing songs they believe will lead them to the essence of the cosmos. “My soul cries out,” they sing. “Caught in the snare of beauty, of the formless one.”
As Dalyrmple uncovers these lives one by one, he pulls the curtain back on a scene of astonishing complexity and beauty. He doesn’t dwell on the esoteric writings of Indian religious literature or examine arcane philosophical notions. He is writing about people—and about how Indian spirituality is expressed in nine very different, remarkable lives.
Dalyrymple is one of those writers who can capture vast truths through simple details. A description of an elderly monk becomes a history of the Tibetan fight for religious freedom. An interview with a Sindhi fakir opens into a reflection of the complex mingling of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam along the India/Pakistan border. All of this is presented in clear, bright, flawless prose.
Nine Lives should be on the bookshelf of any reader interested in Indian culture, and anyone intrigued by religious and spiritual practice. But I recommend this book even for those who’ve never given much thought to India or spirituality. Because, at root, it’s simply dazzling creative nonfiction that looks in depth at the way nine extraordinary people experience the world.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...