Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Title: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
Author: William Dalrymple
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 284
Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

William Dalrymple, who has lived in Delhi on and off for the last 25 years, is one of the most eminent historian and travel writers of all times. His books have won several literary prizes and his focus and interests include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Mughal rule and religious aspects like Hinduism, Islamism, Buddhism and Jainism. This is my first attempt at reading Dalrymple and I must confess that I am mightily impressed with his astounding work and the amount of research that has gone into it. 'Nine Lives' is truly a treasure trove of information unraveling some of the myths, legendary practices and religious beliefs, some of which are on the verge of extinct as India is modernizing in a frenetic pace. This gem of a book reveals so many astonishing facts about almost extinct religious practices and deep-rooted traditions still practiced in rural India, that even many Indians would begin to wonder if this is really the country they grew up in. It would be a tough feat for anyone to grapple with the many idiosyncrasies of the past, as the country is so steeped in rich traditions, divine stories and godly practices (both barbaric and non-barbaric). The progress of India in the global sector has seen an astonishing growth over the past decade and India is predicted to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. However, for those who practice the diverse religious traditions and live them out everyday, no economic reforms have been meted out, yet their futures are uncertain as the practices are on the verge of becoming extinct. As more and more software companies sprout like weeds around every corner of big cities luring the younger generations, What will become of those traditions that are handed down by lineage? Will they survive or perish? I am glad some of these complicated issues are addressed here, so at least people can put on their thinking caps as opposed to acting oblivious to the situation. Divided into nine non-fiction short stories, they are narrated by the characters themselves. Dalrymple takes a backseat, gently guiding them allowing themselves to open up. Nothing here is altered or twisted and the stories comes out purely honest and compelling thereby offering an unflinching look at how some of these people are coping with living in the eye of the storm. 'For a while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.'

Its hard to write a book about India - especially if touches upon religion & sacred beliefs - without talking about sadhus, vedas, monks and monastries. Dalrymple couldn't have had a better subject for his novel, For India, being the cornucopia of traditions, people, culture and topography, fits the bill perfectly. Dalrymple's focus on this book is more of ordinary humans who turn into monks, nuns and in one case, a prison warden who becomes a incarnate deity for just two months in a year. Many of his subjects are quite enigmatic - a former MBA-educated, sales manager with Kelvinator - (a Bombay electricals company), who renounced his worldly desires to become a sadhu and is now trekking up the Himalayan mountains seeking salvation in his half-naked, ash-smeared divine form. Tapan Goswami, a tantric, who lives in a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal, practices spirit-summoning and spell-casting using cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. He is forbidden to speak of his sinister practices by his sons who practice opthamology in New Jersey. Tapan himself is contemplating about living in the West, albeit being an enthusiastic skull-feeder. His enigmatic subjects of the book have led extraordinary lives, driven by an enormous faith and total devotion and it takes an exemplary writer like Dalrymple to shed light on some of these esoteric subjects.

The book begins with 'The Nun's Tale' - fascinating story of a Jain nun 'Prasannamataji', who grew up in a wealthy family in Raipur. Despite having a happy childhood, she turns to an ascetic life soon after puberty. She never doubted her faith in the spiritual path and enjoys practicing it in spite of its rigorous rules. She befriends another nun - Prayogamati, her age and before they knew it, they develop one of the best spiritual connection ever. When Prayogamati dies of sickness, Prasannamataji mourns for the loss of her friend, which is strictly forbidden as a Jain nun, as they are believed to develop indifference to human sufferings. 'Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference - but I still remember her'. Prasannamataji atones for her sin by practising 'sallekhana' - starving oneself to death, which is the last renouncement of Jain munis. This is just a heart-wrenching story in itself, but what I found more appealing are the tidbits thrown here and there about Jainism in general. You might find a plethora of books regarding Buddhism, but not many will you find about Jainism. It opened my eyes to a whole different religion and I find their beliefs utterly fascinating! Though Buddhism and Jainism appear to have some similarities, but in reality, there are oceans apart. Jains don't shave their head, but pluck their hair out by the roots, they have to have food given to them without asking and are forbidden to handle money in any way. These differences are just the tip of the iceberg, as Jainism diverge from Hindus and Buddhists in many deep aspects. Jains not only reject the Hindu idea that the world was created or destroyed by omnipotent gods, but also in their understanding of karma. According to them, 'To gain liberation, you must live life in a way that stops you accumulating more karma and you must embrace a life of world renunciation, non-attachment and an extreme form of non-violence'.

'The Dancer of Kannur' story narrated by Hari Das, a 'Theyyam' dancer, takes us into the lives of Dalit caste people of Kerala. Kerala, being one of the most conservative and socially oppressive in India revels in establishing and still practicing a strictly hierarchical society even in Modern India. A lower-caste man such as 'Dalits', if appeared on the same road as that of warrior-caste Nayyar or higher class Brahmins, could be beheaded righteously for such a crime. But, during the 'theyyam' season, the performers are believed to be possessed by gods and even the higher-class people bow their heads and seek their blessings. 'It's the intensity of your devotion that determines the intensity of possession. If you lose your feeling of devotion, if it even once becomes routine or unthinking, the gods may stop coming'. The theyyam tales are abound with tales questioning the limits of acceptable behavior, especially the abuse of power, as the upper castes struggle to keep their place at the top of the caste pyramid and oppress the lower castes in order to do so. As much as Hari Das finds 'theyyam' as a tool to fight against social injustice, he also finds it very demanding and exhausting. Most of the dancers have a low life expectancy as they use strings to tie heavy costumes on which disrupt their blood circulation. Yet what he finds more frightening is the job he returns to after his theyyam performance - that of a prison warden, where thugs from political parties rule the prison and the mere job of the Hari Das is to keep himself safe and alive in that desolate, frightening place. It is heart-warming to see Hari Das receiving utmost satisfaction from being a dancer. 'Theyyam has made me what I am. All my self-esteem comes from this. The rest of the year, no one here would even greet me or invite me to a share a cup of tea with them. But during the season, I am like a temple, if not a god'.

'Daughters of Yellamma' is the story of devadasis - one of the oldest professions in India, tracing as far back as 9th century or even older - as some archaeologists claim to be 2500 BC. Devadasis are women who enter for life the service of god or goddess. though the nature of that service have recently transformed to be working exclusively in the sex trade. In the medieval times, these 'temple women' were necessarily dancing girls, courtesans or concubines - more like nuns, busy with devotions and temple cleaning duties, domestic and personal servants of the temple Brahmins. Some even had honoured and important roles in temple rituals, fanning the idols, honoring them sandalwood paste and jasmine garlands, singing and playing music in the sanctuary etc. Its such a pity that colonial and post-colonial legislation slowly broke the ancient links that existed between the devadasis and temples and forced into prostitution. Like the protagonist of the story, Rani Bai, they are drawn exclusively from lowest castes - usually from Dalit Madar caste and are almost entirely illiterate. 'For the very poor, and the very pious, the devadasi system is still seen as providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the gods, the two things the poor most desperately crave'. It is such a pity that the devadasis have become more of sex workers today, earning pittance for their services and after only a few years, wither and die of STD and other diseases. But, as Rani Bai says 'But, we must continue this work if we are to eat. We have a lot of misery to bear. But that is our tradition. That is our karma. We try to show our happy side to clients to keep attracting them, and put all our efforts into doing a good job'. As far as hopes for the future, she trusts in none other than 'Yellamma', her goddess.

Let me wrap up this review with one last story, that captivated me from the beginning. Its the 'Monks Tale'. 'Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man', begins a Tibetan Buddhist monk Tashi Passang. He dedicated himself to religion thinking he would have a better chance of a good rebirth in his next life and have an opportunity to gain Nirvana. Passing his youth as a nomad in the Tibetan plains, he spent his time studying in a now destroyed monastery. But, his ambitions to become a hermit, soon evaporated when Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950s and intended to destroy Buddhism. 'Non-violence is the essence of the dharma. Especially for a monk. The most important thing is to love each and every sentient being. But when it comes to a greater cause, sometimes it can be your duty to give back your vows and to fight in order to protect the dharma'. He temporarily gave up his vows to fight against the Chinese and went to exile when he fled with Dalai Lama from Tibet to India. He spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence he committed by printing prayer flags, making sure every flag is perfect, every word correct and legible. He only feels that whatever happened only increased his faith in god. 'We Buddhists believe in karma, in cause and effect. An action has consequences; we are the consequences of our acts. Perhaps because there was a time in the seventh century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese. so we are suffering this torture now. It is our turn to suffer for what we did in previous lives'. Two other stories I really enjoyed are 'The Makers of Idols' and 'Red Fairy', but I will let you explore on your own what its all about, leaving your curiosity intact. Not only all these stories beautifully told, they provide us a window into their obscure lives, their miseries, hopes and unfulfilled dreams. At the heart of these stories, behind all those beliefs and practices, there lies the misery, a longing for freedom and happiness/enlightenment. A desire to free themselves from all evils, dreadful pasts to either nirvana/happy lives. Their prayers remain unanswered as they pursue their utmost devotion to god or sacrifice their lives or practice worldly renunciation. Aside from rendering their life stories, these characters also drawn upon myriads of tales from the ancient mythology and religion. Stories from Jataka tales, Adishankarar, Buddhism and Tibetan cosmology, and even translated works of famous Tamil poets like Appar, Sundarar are featured in this book for a delightful read. I learnt so much about various religious practices in modern India and the relevant mythical stories through this single book. Clearly, Dalrymple is one gem of a writer and I highly endorse this book for anyone who wish to know more about India and how some of the religious devouts cope with the rapid growth of modernization.


Lotus Reads said...

HI Chitts!!!

How I have missed your reviews! You have such a lovely way of writing down your thoughts. Love the clarity and the lucidness of your writing, truly, you make reading reviews so pleasurable, thank you!

Coming to the book though...isn't this one an absolute gem? I lived in India for the first 24 years of my life and (in a predominantly Jain community) but everything Dalrymple tells us about Jainism are revelations to me, I certainly didn't know any of this!

Also loved the chapter of the lady Tantrik, I swear I didn't realize these communities existed in modern India...what a revelation. Like you, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about those religions or communities that function on the fringes of Indian society. Great stuff, cannot wait for Dalrymple's next book.

Happy Reader said...

Dear Lotus - Thank you so much for reading my posts, they sorely missed your comments!! Dalrymple is an absolutely wonderful writer. I'm ashamed to admit that I started reading his books only recently. I am quite determined to devour every single one of his books :) I agree with you, lots of information in this book is a total revelation to me as well.

I had a Jain friend who was close to me through my childhood. I thought I knew everything I had to know about Jainism, only to be proved otherwise by the author.

Because there were many astonishing facts to grasp and contemplate about, the idea of dividing them into several short stories make it more enjoyable, in my opinion.

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