Book review of ‘Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’


I stumbled upon a book review for this book while generally browsing for some good books to read next. I ain’t a religious person or a staunch believer of any faith but the review and summary about the book made me curious to know about lives of different people following their chosen faiths…  and that’s exactly what the book also helped with – exploring and narrating lives of different followers of different faiths.

Though India is often spoken of as a country emerging into one of the world’s super-powers in future, it still gets reflected with pictures of snake-charmers and ash-smeared sadhus and brahmins bathing in the ganges. India’s rich heritage of encompassing and supporting numerous religious faiths and traditions has somehow become its inherent characteristic that now uniquely delineates this country. I assume this particular characteristic of India might have interested the author-historian-critic-journalist, William Dalrymple, to explore it further and learn lives of different people to an extent that I’m sure, many Indians themselves don’t have good knowledge of… I was born in a Jain family and yet wasn’t aware of the concept of sallekhana, described in the story The Nun’s Tale, leave aside having deeper knowledge or awareness about the rest of the faiths.

The book doesn’t educate us about the different faiths of India but is an attempt to describe nine different lives, what has influenced and keeps influencing them, what holds them in the faith  they believe and follow and how is it for them to lead the life they have chosen to live, in an interesting and a completely non-judgmental approach. On one hand, we learn about a nun whose faith has taught her to follow complete non-violence while on the other hand, we learn about faiths of the Tantrics at Tarapith that, according to them, demand animal sacrifices… we learn how some faiths help individuals reach their Gods by the path of song and dance… and we learn how for one it is renunciation and celibacy that builts the path towards salvation while for another it’s either dedicating oneself as a devadasi or believing that practicing ritual sex will get them closer to their Gods.

In this non-fiction narrative, each of these lives have been dealt and narrated, as much as possible, from first-hand accounts – by allowing the selected nine individuals tell their own story and experiences. The author, at the same time, has remained connected to the readers by describing his journey and experiences while he meets these individuals. The writing of this travel-writer is beautiful, descriptive, detailed and engrossing to the point that it gives immense space to the reader to delve into each of the nine lives and reason, judge or think with his / her own sensibilities, as the author’s writing has remained guileless and non-judgmental through-out.

The nine lives that the book captures are of – (1.) a jain nun who describes her life with her best friend and how her loss affects her and defines her journey further; (2.) a theyyam dancer who leads a twin life of a dancer and a prison warder; (3.) the tale of Rani bai, a devadasi, who was reluctant to initially become a sex-worker but later dedicates her own daughters to become devadasis; (4.) the Bhopa of Pabusar who makes a living by singing epics of his God Pabu; (5.) a Sufi follower who has immersed herself in the devotion of Lal Shahbaz Qalander; (6.) a Buddhist monk who is ideally a believer of non-violence and love but had to fight and shed blood for the sake of his dharma; (7.) a maker of idols of different Gods who is disturbed by the fact that his centuries-old respectable family profession may soon vanish; (8.) a lady tantric who is a believer of Goddess Tara and (9.) a blind Baul and his friend, also a Baul, both who initially led different lives but attraction towards the same faith bound them together eventually.

All stories are full of passion, religious fervour and experiences, wonderfully put together in such a way that next time if we happen to come across a follower of any religious faith, we perhaps may not immediately judge or misrepresent their appearance or lifestyle or faith but try to analyse what could have led them to lead the life they lead today.

I would rate the book 4/5 and recommend it to all those who consider themselves curious enough to learn about different faiths followed in India and nine lives influenced by them.

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