As the 21st century barrels into relatively undeveloped areas of the globe, traditions scatter like pins in a bowling lane. Left standing in its wake, though, are pockets of powerful indigenous practices and beliefs. And nowhere are there more of these than in the almost unimaginably diverse Indian subcontinent. Facing down the twin enemies of puritanism and modernism, devotees from a few of these threatened sects tell their stories in William Dalrymple’s beautiful, hopeful, heartbreaking Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India. More than a collection of religious curiosities, Nine Lives portrays men and women trying to connect with the divine and care for their fellow humans in ways both familiar and hauntingly strange.
Uniting their stories are powerful themes of persecution, poverty, and unlikely community. A Jain nun mourns the loss of her longtime companion to illness and voluntary starvation, even as she strives to overcome all earthly attachments. A low-caste ritual dancer, possessed by gods and goddesses night after night three months out of the year, and worshipped by the region’s elites, spends the off-season working as a guard in a notorious prison, and trying not to get killed. Sacred prostitutes dedicated to the goddess Yellamma as girls live short, abused lives before succumbing to AIDS. A singer recites a centuries-old epic poem illustrated by a holy picture in a performance that can encompass several all-nighters. A woman finds welcome and respect in the shrine of a Sufi saint whose humanistic teachings incense religious hardliners. Tibetan monks who took up arms in a futile stand against the Chinese invaders try to atone for their violent pasts while in exile. The last of 23 generations of idol-makers casts the bronze statues that are revered in Tamil temples far and wide. Tantric practitioners in Bengal worship a bloodthirsty goddess in houses built of skulls. And a blind singer wanders the countryside with the subversive Baul message that we all have to find God in our own way.
Dalrymple narrates the journeys he makes to encounter these worshippers, then places their first-person stories in historical and theological context. He’s moved by inclusive creeds and anti-authoritarian messages, clearly biased toward any group that incurs the wrath of the fundamentalist Muslims or high-caste Hindus. It isn’t that the devotions of the poor and powerless (often by choice) are more likely to be pure, but that the spirit of the sacred burns brightest where money and influence work most ardently against it. His crystalline images of human praise raised to that spirit make for some of the best reading of the year.