India is a mysterious land. While economic development has transformed its cities and suburbs into modern centers of commerce that resemble urban areas around the world, its villages and countryside seem fundamentally untouched by the secular electronic age. In rural places, some people live much as their ancestors did 100, 500, or even 1000 years ago. In his travels across the Indian subcontinent, author William Dalrymple has identified nine people living timelessly. In his new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, Dalrymple profiles each within the context of Indian culture.
I started reading Nine Lives wondering whether it would qualify as a collective biography. While each of the nine chapters contains a story of an individual living a life that reflects the past in the present, the author spends much of his effort setting the stage and philosophizing on the meaning of lives. While immersed in reading about the landscapes and traditions, I sometimes forgot who we were following. This is fitting, as Dalrymple's book is not really about individuals. His subjects have all surrendered themselves to lives in service to their beliefs.
Dalrymple's subjects include a Jain nun, a ritual dancer, a temple prostitute, and a blind minstrel. All align with Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist faiths in some way, but they are not all particularly pious. Some are seeking purity and peace, while others are just doing the jobs that they born to do. Some still travel by walking, begging for food along the way and sheltering in holy places. All are somewhat revered for serving their societal functions by communities who see no conflict keeping the old ways while living in the 21st century.
The author includes a ten-page glossary in the back to define many unfamiliar concepts and identify many of Hindu's gods and goddesses. Because he defines pretty well throughout the text, I did not need the glossary often, but it was still good to have. Readers who enjoy the unfamiliar will appreciate Nine Lives.
Dalrymple, William. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 9780307272829.