Travel literature review: Nine Lives

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Rating: 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Elizabeth Shannon

Nine Lives is not really a travel book.  This is not the tale of a bemused foreigner fumbling through an exotic landscape, but rather the result of William Dalrymple’s long familiarity with India:  nine stories of religious practitioners navigating both the innate certitudes and contradictions of their own faiths and how India’s rapid development has affected these traditions and people's roles in them.

Dalrymple’s prose is dispassionate and unbiased, unusual in a time when discussions of religion tend toward a zero-sum game – belief is either all wrong or all right.  One illustrative story is that of Rajasthani Jain nun Prasannamati Mataji, who talks of her decision to follow into death a fellow nun who had died of untreated tuberculosis because of the Jain monastic rule against taking Western pharmaceuticals (we are told that animal testing violates the Jain practice of nonviolence).  This story of renunciation – both of modernity and her mortal self – is difficult to read; the mind recoils at her sacrifice at such a young age. But this story raises the question of what is happiness? Prasannamati Mataji’s certitude and nonviolent purity is attractive, but extreme; but how light, then, should our footstep be on the earth?

In the same way, each of these stories illuminates these conflicts within faith and modernity, between the rights of the individual and our obligation to community.  The stories range widely, including traditional bronzecasters in Tamil Nadu, a Buddhist monk who renounced his monastic vows to fight the Chinese and now resides in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama, and temple prostitutes confronting AIDS and social prejudices in Karnataka.

Nine Lives raises useful questions, both specific to India and about the difficult dance between tradition and globalised modernity. With fluid prose and fascinating detail, Dalrymple teaches us about South Asia but also explores the effects of globalisation on traditional societies worldwide and the potentials and pitfalls for human society of our collective fascination with religious belief, and how it reinforces social behaviour, for better or worse.

Elizabeth Shannon works in publishing and studies environmental policy in Washington, DC. She is a frank Indiaphile who is interested in the role of religion and moral reasoning in the development of a sustainable economic system.

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