Summary and book reviews of Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

By William Dalrymple

Nine Lives
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2010,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2011,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

William Dalrymple is the author of six previous acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Guardian.

From the author of The Last Mughal ("A compulsively readable masterpiece" —The New York Review of Books), an exquisite, mesmerizing book that illuminates the remarkable ways in which traditional forms of religious life in India have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change—a book that distills the author’s twenty-five years of travel in India, taking us deep into ways of life that we might otherwise never have known exist.

A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet—and spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence by hand printing the finest prayer flags in India ... A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her closest friend ritually starve herself to death ... A woman leaves her middle-class life in Calcutta and finds unexpected fulfillment living as a Tantric in an isolated, skull-filled cremation ground ... A prison warder from Kerala is worshipped as an incarnate deity for three months of every year ... An idol carver, the twenty-third in a long line of sculptors, must reconcile himself to his son’s desire to study computer engineering ... An illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan keeps alive in his memory an ancient four-thousand-stanza sacred epic ... A temple prostitute, who initially resisted her own initiation into sex work, pushes both her daughters into a trade she nonetheless regards as a sacred calling.

William Dalrymple chronicles these lives with expansive insight and a spellbinding evocation of circumstance. And while the stories reveal the vigorous resilience of individuals in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernity, they reveal as well the continuity of ancient traditions that endure to this day. A dazzling travelogue of both place and spirit.

1

The Nun's Tale

Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries, temples and dharamsalas cluster around a grid of dusty, red earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering.

For more than 2,000 years, this Karnatakan town has been sacred to the Jains. It was here, in the third century bc, that the first Emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, embraced the Jain religion and died through a self-imposed fast to the death, the emperor's chosen atonement for the killings for which he had been responsible in his life of conquest. Twelve hundred years later, in ad 981, a ...

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Reviews

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Nine Lives 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.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

Full Review Members Only (933 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
Nine Lives is an absolutely beautiful book: honest, edifying, and moving. I love so much about it, but mostly I love how William Dalrymple has gotten out of the way of the story, letting the characters inhabit in their own voices every square inch of each page. It’s a delight.

Author Blurb Deepak Chopra
In this exquisite book of extraordinary lives, we see that the sacred survives in India amidst all its contradictions and modernity. William Dalrymple dazzles us with stories of how a deeper reality stokes the fire of life in the recesses of our souls. These are stories of real people in postmodern India. By peering into the secret passages of their psyches, we learn more about our own self, our fantasies, our shadows, our longings, our hidden potential.

Pankaj Mishra, The National (Abu Dhabi)

Gripping, and often very moving .... Characters rarely allowed into contemporary Anglophone writing about India are given an opportunity to describe their deepest aspirations without the slightest hint of authorial condescension.

Indian Express

Heart-wrenching ... Each of the nine stories speaks of the resilience of the human spirit when fighting against impossible odds .... Dalrymple [is] among the most perceptive and humane of travel writers.

The Guardian

William Dalrymple's triumphant return to travel writing not only illuminates India’s relationship with religion but casts the genre itself in a new light ... A wise and rewarding book fizzing with Dalrymple's signature erudition and lightness of touch ... The travel book of the year.

Wendy Doniger, The Times Literary Supplement

Dalrymple vividly evokes the lives of these men and women, with the sharp eye and good writing that we have come to expect of his extraordinary books ... Nine Lives is a glorious mixture of journalism, anthropology, history, and history of religions, written in prose worthy of a good novel ... Not since Kipling has anyone evoked village India so movingly ... The book gives an answer to Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and those who would condemn all religions for the sake of the fanatical fringe.

The Observer

This is travel writing at its best ... It is also a series of biographies which unpick the rich religious heritage of the subcontinent ... This book makes its political points more powerfully than any newspaper article.

The Sunday Times

Beautifully written, ridiculously erudite and, more than any of his previous work, reveals Dalrymple to be remarkably warm- and open-hearted ... He [is] a towering talent.

The Scotsman

The outstanding read of the year ... Entirely absorbing and beautifully lucid . . . The sub-continent rises, bemusing, bedazzling, a sensory tapestry crafted brilliantly.

Kirkus Reviews

Dalrymple showcases his knowledge of the breadth of India and his fearless willingness to penetrate its sometimes unsavory nooks and crannies, rendering this a truly heartfelt work for readers craving a deeper connection to India and its rich spiritual heritage. A remarkable feat of journalism.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [An] ambitious and affectionate book that respects popular religion.

Library Journal

Starred Review. More accessible but less scholarly than Wendy Doniger's The Hindus, Dalrymple's book is highly recommended for all collections.

Pico Iyer, Time

A singular achievement ... Dalrymple 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.

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Art as Devotion: Theyyam Dancers

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 ...

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