One consumes one’s life in narcissistic and even egoistical ways. That travel can make us leave behind our cocoons of self-examination and indulgence is proved in two ways – by actually travelling or letting one’s mind travel when one relishes art in any form. In the land that is a mixed bag of cultures and religions, it is almost Herculean to distill the fundamental characteristics of what constitutes an Indian. Is an Indian an Aryan? A Dravidian? Or both? A woman in a saree? A man in a Dhoti? Is an Indian an unclean citizen? Is an Indian culturally magnanimous or hypocritically myopic? There is no one answer. Like the reflecting of light inside a kaleidoscope that is India, being an Indian means a lot of different things. One of the characteristics that divides more often that unites is the religious inclination of most of India’s population, and to a very great extent. Here we’re not considering the rise of the new generation agnostics and atheists, however superficial they may be. William Dalrymple’s 2009 book, Nine Lives, is a wonderful concoction of all these things – travel, stepping out of one’s familiar landscape, Indians, and yes, religion.
As the title suggests, this book takes us on a journey and introduces us to nine people who live/have lived whole, purposeful, and passionate lives. Each story has a central character who has arrived to a fold of religion either by introduction or after seeking themselves in this labyrinth of life. Spanning from Kerala to Rajasthan to Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal and even Tibet and back, Nine Lives paints honest portraits of people who have suffered, been misunderstood, sought to find out where they fit in and have finally arrived. There is a story of a Jain nun who writhes in pain as her best friend slowly dies. Another story of a theyyam dancer who exudes uncommon passion more for satisfaction than monetary compensation. An idol maker who understands why his son would sit in front of a computer than learn his father’s craft, but he wishes that he would rather not understand. A woman who sews her life in a Sufi shrine after her life was torn in the political battle of two nations. Another woman who lives in a cremation ground and describes it as a thriving ecosystem where the dead and living coexist. There stories, among others, outline the triumph of a human being’s innate need to first find oneself and then find the tribe to which they belong.
At the other end of the spectrum, these stories also highlight religious practices unknown to most city dwellers and the eyes that don’t seek. How is it possible that a God descends into a human body to cure? Why is the consumption of blood and body fluids normal practice for some? How is that art and prayer have not separated for even a moment in some hearts? There is no scientific reasoning that can be applied to these practices, because after a point of time science does fail. Somehow, I would like too believe that it is necessary for science to fail and faith to emerge victorious. It makes for such wonder and amazement. You can’t wrap everything around your head. Where’s the fun in understanding everything?
Every story in Nine Lives leaves you speechless at the end. Be it Hari Das, Lal Pari, or Mohan Bhopa, each one of them make for such interesting and brave people that you can’t help but admire them for their courage to follow their hearts wherever they may lead them. Nine Lives is mandatory reading for every Indian. William Dalrymple has painstakingly written about our fellow citizens and his stories compel us to sit up and take notice. His stories draw us out from our sheltered lives and prod us to look at the people of our country with unceasing awe. Again. These stories break our hearts so that we may know what it is to be human and go on that journey to find ourselves. Each one of these nine lives evokes the comprehension of the vastness of life and the joy of exploring its subsequent depth.