is a stunning, affecting study of human aspiration and goodness. But despite the jacket blurbs, this isn't really "travel writing." As Dalrymple moves through India's "sacred topography," he assembles the biographies of nine people whose lives intersect with the divine. Although contemporary India is always present (a shaman listens to a soccer game on a transistor radio from his hut on a bone-strewn cremation plot), Nine Lives
immerses the reader in an India of "sacred time" where the contemporary meets the times, gods are present in nature - and art, song, wandering, military service - even prostitution - express spiritual striving, devotion, humility, love and hope.
The nine stories are surprising, shocking, grotesque, lovely, and supported by pertinent and interesting history and background information (literacy erodes the...
Beyond the Book
The subjects of Dalrymple's Nine Lives
seek transcendence and divine communion in different ways. Some embrace aceticsm, while for others like the wandering Baul minstrel, the reciter of holy epics, or the maker of bronze deities, "art and religion are one."
The most vivid practitioner of art as devotion is Hari Das, the dalit
(untouchable) theyyam dancer. In an article for the London Times
, Dalrymple explains, "Theyyam dance is a spectacular form of possession dance from northern Kerala, in the southwest of India, remarkable for its vibrant music and its astonishingly powerful and elaborate makeup and masks. The word theyyam derives from daivam, the Sanskrit for god. During the season, the theyyam dancers bring stories of the gods to...