Book Review: Nine Lives – by William Dalrymple

For Book Club Meeting: Saturday, 27th March 2010.
Venue: Ms. Madhavi Murthy’s residence. Time: 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm


William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives, (In search of the Sacred in Modern India), offers us a marvelous journey through his own travel-destinations in a country piled up with countless beliefs and faiths. The book’s narrative account and interviews never stop to move on, and before you know it, you are on top of a hill, or become a part of a pilgrimage, or are participating in song and dance with the roaming bards who are perpetuating to strengthen the roots of their dying heritage. The way the glossary, the index, the bibliography and the different regions of India are laid out, gives one the desire to breathe and live with the book constantly. For me, the font and paper of a book are ceremonies by themselves. Both these features confirmed my devotion to the book. At all levels, Dalrymple demonstrates the fabulous knack of sharing his knowledge with the readers by maintaining a brilliant standard of research and talent of fine writing. Both aspects are critical for such books as Nine Lives. Among many others, Max Hastings, Sunday Times, aptly compliments the author: ‘Dalrymple is an outstandingly gifted travel writer and historian’.

What is involved in Nine Lives is nine lives of different sects of people trying to find the spirit of freedom and salvation, surrounding their span of lives. Which adopted path will work out for them or has already worked out for these individuals – Dalrymple prepares the presentation with their background courageously confronting heart-tearing conditions. The first-hand-interviews waste no time in satisfying even the most knowledge-thirsty adventurer. Nine Lives takes its readers to the inner-most secret chambers of such causeways of cults, where most would not dare to tread. By my own sense of perception, chapters covering: The Daughters of Yellamma, The Lady Twilight are the flashing examples standing out with all their oddity and contributions. Rani Bai, always the optimist, always the survivor, retains the auspiciousness and dignity of selling her body to lust-filled men, as a pure mark of devotional vocation to Goddess Yellamma. In this, she is not only defending herself, but also several thousands of other women who on similar tracks, are expecting the deity’s blessings and support. Clearly, the devadasis plight lies between basic existence versus dying wretchedly through AIDS, or matching diseases.

To understand Manisha Ma Bhairavi in the chapter of the Lady Twilight is even more bizarre and complex. Sitting in the shadows like a shadow, on a night without the moon; giving you expanding glimpses of blood-thirsty Goddess Tara; living in cremation grounds amid Sadhu-clans, half-burnt bodies, strewn skulls, sacrificial rituals – I am transported to the realms of reality and obscurity: all at the same time. Images of dread-locked naked ash-smeared Sadhus detail my quivering imagination to no end. By and large, the base of Nine Lives is the base of the socio-economic circumstances of the main nine characters of Dalrymple’s book.

Never to a standstill, all along the pages of his book, the author has converted us into eager students of fierce and interesting history. The Monk’s Tale wraps in quite a lot by bringing forward how Tibet was taken away by the aggression of its powerful neighbour, China.

Whether we are a world going to wrack and ruin, the large looming truth is that history of no continent has been merciful or humane. It is the law of jungle that prevails. The ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Africans, Europeans, Asians inherited from their forefathers’: Images of God and Nature for devotion. In the roundabout, demonic traditions arise and decline. Dharma (duty, religion, virtue) shows up from time to time, in forms of true saints, scholars and philosophers.

Like nothing else, the first milk for the new born grabs importance – mankind has naturally found God’s meaning in every aspect of his life, right from the beginning of time. Universally, epics after epics describe tales based on God. The first and last help for the majority of us comes from God. Battles of differences, till to-day, are fought in the name of God. People are comfortable to starve themselves to death, in the name of God (The Nun’s Tale in Nine Lives). Be it the Red Fairy, The Dancer of Kannur, The Makers of Idols, Tashi Passang – entirely, Nine Lives is about God’s thought fermenting in everyone’s moments. From head to foot, are we not all clad by the mysteries and forms of God? While concluding the review of Nine Lives, there is no question – that I would not express myself through my poem: My God.

My God


Savage red, saffron orange, pristine white —
which robe does He clad?
My God?

Is the temple His abode?
Or, does He choose staved churches, instead?

Is He garish, subdued,
good to a fault?
Does His kindness ever draw back oaths?

Is He humane, like you and me?
Amply endowed?
Or, a citadel of a cruel giant looming about!

Where does He roam?
On top of dunes around pyramid cones,
and mountain ranges?
The desert-cities, or the tip of Tundra’s
frigid zones?

Is He among the Philistines, Jews, Hindus, Muslims,
grazing shepherds’ sheep in the grass?
Or, inside a grass-hopper’s hopping flights!

Are His feet in ‘chappals’ bound?
Perhaps, He is in gumboots that are
wide in stride!
Is He barefooted, unheeded, blistered by disappointments,
while He makes His rounds?

What is my God?
A wave of upheaval,
a surgical calm?
Gushing streams?
A songster’s
ripple in the pond?

Which is my God?
The One who knows of Mosaic Law?
The Granth Sahib?
Or, the Holy Quran?
Does He recite the Puranic Verse
in tune? Or, believes
in Greek gods anciently true?

God of all formations...
God of every man.
My One God —You are the Truth.
The Whole Truth!
One God.

1997
Geeta Chhabra

Glossary.
‘chappals’ — Indian style foot-wear.

Geeta Chhabra


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