Thoughts on “Nine Lives”

Yesterday I finished reading Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple.  I highly recommend this book.  It is readable and insightful.  Even though all the people Dalrymple profiles are extreme he does humanize them and makes them understandable.  He has a wide geographical range-from Sindh in Pakistan, to Bengal, to Karnataka, to Tibet, to Kerala, and a wide range of religions (although some may argue they are all aspects of Hinduism) Jains, Buddhists, Sufis, and various sects of Hinduism.

The first chapter is about a Jain nun in Karnataka who is slowly starving herself to death.  I was not looking forward to reading this chapter at all.  Jainism had always sounded so bleak to me and pointless.  It is a testament to Dalrymple and the remarkable nun he interviewed that the chapter turned out to be beautiful.  Her decision to leave her family while a teenager and to undergo extreme privations (like having her hair pulled out strand by strand) made sense.  The description of the tightly controlled ritual starvation also seemed beautiful-the person undergoing the ritual is never left alone-people are there to recite religious texts and to provide company.  If the person wants to stop the ritual at any point, they have that choice.  Her decision made sense because it was what she had prepared for her whole life and because she looked on death as an eagerly awaited adventure.

The third chapter was most troubling.  I didn’t think it contained much beauty at all.  Instead it seemed pathetic and hopeless. In the past, people dedicated to Yellamma had high positions in society-they were educated, wealthy, etc.  Now they are like common prostitutes except they wear silk sarees, and sometimes are invited to important rituals to give blessings.  The woman in the chapter was dedicated as a child against her will to pay off her family’s debts, but ended up also forcing her daughters into the same thing (her daughters ended up dying as teens from AIDS).  The woman hoped to save up enough money to get out of prostitution, but that is highly unlikely as it is revealed that the woman herself is infected.  The Indian government is trying to stop the practice, but Dalrymple writes that their efforts and the efforts of earlier British reformers has worsened the situation by driving it more underground and by marginalizing the position of those dedicated to Yellamma.

Some of the chapters focused on people whose way of worship may disappear soon because of the modernizing of Indian society-the man from the Rajasthani desert who with his wife and family performs epic poems, the man who creates idols, the man who embodies the gods when he dances.  Others represent traditions that are in danger due to politics and violence-the monk from Tibet, the woman from the Sufi site in Sindh.  I asked Satya what his view of this was, and he said that nothing in India truly dies, it just changes.  People still are interested in the age old traditions.  I’m not so sure.  He gives the example of the wealthy middle-aged bankers whose hobby is Yakshagana.

The importance of marriage and family in Indian culture was reinforced for me.  The chapter about the epic singer of Rajasthan wasn’t just about him.  Dalrymple writes about how one cannot be an epic singer without a wife who is equally talented as a singer.  At the end of the chapter, Dalrymple describes a performance where even the four year old grandson of the singer was included-he danced alongside his father and grandparents.  That was a very beautiful passage as well.  Even the chapter about the Tantra practicioners focused on how important family is.  Despite the view in the West of Tantrics being wild “anything goes” types, in reality the Tantrics need to get married to have a partner with whom to do the rites. Again, Dalrymple was able to go beyond stereotypes.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and fascinating.  I very much recommend the book.  I don’t think it helped much wiht clarifying how everyday Indians experience Hinduism or what they believe.  If you have any suggestions for a book about that, I’m open to suggestions.

Back Again

I’ve decided to keep blogging.  I love to read what others are experiencing in their relationships and learn more about India.

Satya and I have been together now for three years.  Some things that I thought we’d have figured out by now are still up in the air (religion).  Other things were much easier than expected (visiting India and meeting his extended family).  Also, we are still in the same city I’ve been trying to move away from for nearly 3 years-very frustrating.

We’ve had our victories, like him finally receiving his permanent green card last month.  Don’t underestimate the stress of waiting for that to arrive and the stress of putting together all that paperwork.  Satya is much more methodical than me and we had many arguments about what to include (I wanted to include just the bare minimum).  The final weight of the package with its table of contents, color coded Post-It bookmarks, etc. was 4 pounds!!  We were lucky-we were able to complete all the paperwork ourselves without a lawyer.  Still, it was not an easy process.  We are breathing a sigh of relief now until the final batch of papers-for citizenship next year.

Another victory….Successfully hosting his parents for the past 3 summers for 3 months each time. Most of the credit goes to his parents for being so kind and so tolerant of us.  This summer we were both working and somewhat stressed out so we couldn’t spend as much time with them as we’d have liked, but we still had a good time together.  We’d all take walks together, play board games, watch movies, and go to the temple together sometimes.  It is nice to know that they love and support us and that we all feel comfortable together.

Some things are still works in progress.

Religion….We agreed that we’d both keep our religions and raise our future kids to respect both.  In practice though, we lean more towards Hindu/Lingayat more than to Catholic.  Mostly this is due to the attitudes we encounter at church such as priests in their homilies mocking religions like Hinduism for “worshipping rivers and rocks”.  I still feel like I don’t have a firm grasp of what Hinduism is exactly, but am slowly learning from experience-going with his family to the temple, celebrating some festivals, listening to beautiful songs with his mother like “Kali Maheshwari” and “Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma” etc.  It is hard to balance the two when Catholicism seems to say, “It is all or nothing,” and the Hinduism seems to say, “Come as you are…eventually we’ll all end up in the same place.”

Language.  My Kannada skills are laughable.  Maybe someday I’ll learn more.  We will be going to India again within the year so we’ll see. I just haven’t made it a priority.  Satya still intends to speak to our future kids in Kannada, so we’ll see how that goes.  I think if our kids were to have a fighting chance at understanding and speaking Kannada, we’d have to live in Karnataka for a while.  Or maybe encourage his parents to only speak in Kannada to them.  We’ll see……

Balancing our families.  Tricky.  This past January we went to India to see his extended family-aunts, uncles, cousins.  Indian hospitality can’t be beat.  This past July we went to Iowa to see my extended family-not so welcoming or warm and friendly.  I put part of this on Midwestern Scandinavian reticence-maybe if they after meeting Satya a few more times they’ll be more welcoming.

It is also hard to balance limited vacation time between the two families.  I wish I could see my parents for three months out of the year, but I can understand the reasons for the disparity.  My parents live close to two of my sisters.  Satya doesn’t have any siblings living near his parents and his siblings are unwilling to host his parents for more than a week.

**************************************************************************************************************

On a completely different note, I have a book to recommend Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull.  Very entertaining and well-written.  It is about Sarah’s adaptation to Paris and to her Paris love.  She is from Australia.  I think most people in intercultural relationships will find parts of the book that relate to them.