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.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Gori Girl
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 03:09:41

    I’ve always wanted to pick up one of Dalrymple’s books on India, and I’ve been eyeing Nine Lives for awhile. Looks like I should go grab it!

    For a book to help you understand Hinduism, I’d suggest either Gavin Flood’s Introduction to Hinduism or Diana Eck’s Darsan. The first is more of an overview of Hinduism as a religion, the second is more on the experience of religious rituals in Hinduism. Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion also looks good for your purposes, but I’ve never read it.


  2. Trackback: Friday Connections 29-10-10 | Gori Girl
  3. Vishal
    Oct 31, 2010 @ 17:30:50

    I really admire Dalrymple’s writings — so far, The White Mughal remains my most favorite of all his works. I like the way he get so close to the characters and events that he’s studying but still abstains from judging them. He simply asks the Jain nun how a Jain ritual (can’t recall what it’s called) is not a suicide? A very genuine inquiry, to which he doesn’t really get a satisfactory answer, but he quietly leaves it at that.

    He also doesn’t seem to have any pre-conceived notions (at least in his writings) and let the characters speak for themselves.

    I would recommend Pankaj Mishra’s travelogue ‘Temptations of the West:How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond’, in which he explores a similar plight of South/Central Asians in the midst of globalization. Compared to Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, this book has more of a socio-economic outlook (as opposed to predominantly religious POV of the former).


  4. Desi boy
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 13:38:25

    Bookclub sounds like a wonderful idea. Btw Minnesota cpl did you encounter resistance from Satya’s family with the idea of keeping both religions and not converting to one ? Or did you not talk about it much with their family before your wedding? This is an area where me and my girl are having resistance from my family and would love to hear .

    Hi Desi boy! I’ve never encountered any resistance from them about trying to incorporate both religions. We definitely didn’t talk about it with them before the wedding, and have not really talked about it afterwards. Basically, our wedding was a done deal before his parents met me-we had already had the legal ceremony and were living with each other by the time I met his parents.

    I try to make his parents feel welcome, which is pretty easy since they are easygoing, wonderful people. The four of us will go to the temple together when they are here. The gods are in a bookcase in our living room right in the open. We have small lamps and incense for them to use. His mom loves music so she will play bhajans and if I like one of them I’ll ask about it and try to find out about the story or the singer, etc. I have some books about Hindu folktales.

    The lifestyle that Satya and I have also helps because it doesn’t conflict much with theirs. We don’t drink, don’t eat meat, and don’t dance (I don’t know why the dancing is a big concern).

    My sister-in-law, also white, takes the opposite approach (meat, alcohol, no religion for baby) which has created strained relations and discomfort.

    I guess it all depends on the personalities involved and how open everyone is. I do know that I am very lucky. My in laws are very open and seem to want openness in return. It also probably helps that I’m not Muslim nor from a fundamentalist background.

    Does this help?


  5. Joel
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 22:30:27

    I saw your complete blog, nowhere you guys have posted your face this against the indian religion to post atleast few pics..or your indian husband is against this?

    It was a mutual decision. Of course it isn’t against Hinduism to post a picture-some bloggers like GoriGirl do post a lot of pics.


  6. luckyfatima
    Nov 12, 2010 @ 15:42:28

    I love Dalrymple. Although many would discount him as a serious historian, he is a great writer and makes history fun (lots of ancient juicy gossip :D) for non-specialists who are interested in India…like myself 🙂 I will have to check out this particular book on your recommendation.

    Funny about Jainism…I don’t know much about it as a religion from a scholarly point of view, but the handful of Jains I know are hard core foodies, definitely not bleak types. They actually have “Jain hotels” or restos with the food prepared according to Jain restrictions which are very lavish and delicious. I really couldn’t tell you what they believe in, though…I just like the Gujarati food 🙂


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