Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India


In Nine Lives, William Dalrymple explores the impact that India’s rapid modernization has had on the country’s multi-faceted spiritual life through “a collection of non-fiction short stories”, with each life “intended to act as a keyhole onto the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition.”

Much to his own surprise, Dalrymple concludes that “for all the development that has taken place, many of the issues that I found holy men discussing and agonizing about remained the same eternal quandaries that absorbed the holy men of India, thousands of years ago….. The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows.”

Written in breathtakingly beautiful prose, all nine stories have a power and poignancy that cannot fail to move you – though at times they can leave you confused and bewildered by the motivations of the main characters.

For me, the most poignant tale in the book is of a Jain nun who has embarked on the long and rigorous road of Sallekhana (ritual fast to death) after seeing her close companion of twenty years follow the same path, gradually giving up rice, fruits, vegetables, juice, and finally water in a carefully regulated process until “she just slipped away”.

For the nun, Sallekhana is “a beautiful thing” that is “just as exciting as visiting a new landscape or new country.” Others, including myself, may not fully share her opinion but all the same you find yourself respecting her faith and determination.

In the Nun’s Tale, Dalrymple does a brilliant job of describing the history and philosophy of the austere Jain religion. Indeed, in all the stories he uses his vast knowledge of Indian history and culture to put each of the individual’s actions into the right context and perspective without ever editorializing.

This is the central strength of the book: the author lets each character tell their own story on their own terms without editorializing or making any valued judgments.

I finished Nine Lives realizing how little I know about India and eager to learn more. It also left me hungry to explore one day many of the places he so vividly describes such as Tarapith, the home of the great Tantric goddess Tara, and Tanjore in Tamil Nadu, the former capital of the legendary Chola Empire.

Before that day comes, however, all I have to do to conjure these places in my mind is pick up the book and read its evocative descriptions of the Indian countryside.

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