William Dalrymple's Nine Lives: Into the Mystic

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Indians "love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic," Jan Morris wrote, affectionately, more than 30 years ago. And foreigners who go to India often love to project upon its 350 million or so gods their own rainbow-colored visions of Eternity. But far from the Technicolor gurus who excite so much attention in the West, and behind the beeping trucks and fast-rising malls that are so exhilarating to Indians today, everyday souls are sustaining centuries-old ways of bringing gods into their difficult days and homes. In their devotion and humble attentions, Hindu and Muslim and Jain — not to mention menial worker and Brahmin and outlaw — have as much in common as apart. "We may be mortal," as one sculptor of deities (and a Lions Club president) tells William Dalrymple, in his new book Nine Lives, "but our work is immortal."

It is the singular achievement of Dalrymple, in his strikingly chaste and selfless book, to give us the lives and voices of some regular Indian and Pakistani worshippers without judgment, speculation or high-flown abstraction. He just sets the scene around them, presents some historical background and lets them tell their stories. A prison warden explains how he takes off two months every year to become (along with a waiter, a bus conductor and a man who collects coconut juice) a divinely possessed dancer. A Tibetan monk recalls how he found himself taking up arms against Chinese invaders. A temple dancer — or sacred prostitute, in effect — remembers how her father sold her off to a shepherd, when she was 14, for $15, a silk sari and a bag of millet.

The details of their lives and customs are remarkable, and all Dalrymple has to do is let his voice recorder run. In Rajasthan, we learn, traditional singers, usually illiterate, can recite texts 626 pages long and, in the process, it is believed, cure sick cows and exorcise the possessed. Their illiteracy, Dalrymple explains, allows them to hold lines in their heads as readers never could. In a fire-lit cremation ground in Bengal, we see politicians, even communists, coming to a woman regarded as a witch to sacrifice goats in advance of an election. The woman, who lives among jackals in the burning ground, tells us why it's best to drink blood from the skull of a suicide or virgin. As an erudite scholar, Dalrymple gives us a precedent and a context for all this. As a fluent and vivid travel writer, he evokes the landscapes of the land he loves, and bullock carts that "trundle along red dirt roads, past village duck ponds, and the tall, rain-wet fans of banana trees."

Behind the uninflected stories of Nine Lives, though, lies an elegiac keening. For as fast as rural people are streaming into India's exploding cities and logging companies are cutting down sacred groves, the traditions that have sustained the devout for generations are being threatened. The maker of sacred sculptures tells us how his son, though he has inherited the ancestral gift, wants to become a computer engineer, preferring a comfortable future to a way of life that has lasted over 700 years. The son of a dreadlocked Tantric sadhu is "an accountant with Tata." A temple dancer sees two teenage daughters die within six months of each other, thanks to one of the grimmest developments in modern India: AIDS.

For years now, Dalrymple has been seasoning his delight in Eastern cultures with a surreptitious interest in religion. In his 1997 book, From the Holy Mountain, he combined the two by describing his travels around the Middle East in the footsteps of the 6th century monk John Moschos. Here, he brings a powerful restraint and clarity to precisely the two subjects — India and faith — that cause most observers to fly off into cosmic vagueness or spleen. The result is a deeply respectful and sympathetic portrait of those modest souls seldom mentioned in the headlines. "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?" G.K. Chesterton wrote at the beginning of his book Orthodoxy. In Nine Lives, Dalrymple and his subjects give us an answer.