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Archive for January, 2010

Nine Lives – William Dalrymple

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 27, 2010

I have never been able to articulate to myself (in reasonable terms) the meaning of the expression “Life’s Calling”. What exactly is it? Does everybody have one? What are the trajectories of people who give into the force of it and of those who don’t? Is happiness a guaranteed outcome of those who have sincerely followed it? Is the disappointment and regret arising out of not following it an unmanageable burden in sunset years of an individual? What are the consequences of abandoning a life’s calling midway? – These are some questions that I always sought answers for. The older I grow, the more I think of this but come away without any conclusive answers. I have never had opportunity to talk to people who have really answered this calling of Life.  Contrary to reality, fiction appears to be a fertile terrain replete with characters who have followed their life’s calling. But the typical portrayal of outcome of this journey is always at diametrical extremes of glory or infamy. In my view this approach takes the fictional narrative away from reality despite being realistic, acceptable, elevating and inevitably leads us to shining heroes or dark villains and none in between. What is the world of common folks who have succumbed to their Life’s calling? What are their experiences? How do they make the necessary crossovers? Having crossed, how do they view the lives and worlds they have renounced? More importantly have they gained the happiness they sought? These and many more interesting questions form the essence of William Dalrymple’s latest book “Nine Lives”. Chosen from an array of crossovers,”Nine Lives” in the author’s own words deals with lives that are “suspended between modernity and tradition”

Dalrymple provides fascinating glimpses into the vicissitudes of the life of the transformation from “ordinary to sacred” of an ordinary girl who takes refuge in the tough vows of a jain monk and embraces death wholeheartedly, a rustic girl from Bihar who becomes a sufi adherent and continues to do so in the face of intolerant fundamentalism creeping around her, a part time well digger and jail warden who transforms into a Theyyam dancer in Kerala, a fable singer from the arid deserts of Rajasthan who is confidently hopeful that his tradition of singing epics will sustain despite the onslaught of modern media, a blind baul singer in Bengal who finds enormous happiness and companionship in other baul singers, an idol maker in Tamilnadu who is disappointed at the breaking of the lineage on account of his son’s refusal to embrace his profession, a tibetan monk who believes wholeheartedly in ahimsa but is forced to embrace violence in the face of Chinese aggression, a devastated devadasi who is bitterly reconciled with her status and a woman who renounces urban milieu to find comfort in a life in a graveyard. In some sense these are infrequently visible, not well known and unappreciated forms of living that are rooted in the nooks and corners of India and Dalrymple ferrets them out with great care, affection and enormous sympathy

Dalrymple captures the essence of these lives and their settings with a clarity and vividness which is impressive and enormously readable. This is less of travel writing (for which Dalrymple is famous) and more of purposive journalism which burnishes the stories with a special glow. And that is a  testimony not only to Dalrymple’s writing powers but also to the inherently fascinating nature of the subject matter itself.

As India modernises, the destruction of what once were regarded as life sustaining spiritual traditions and essential constituents of popular culture is only going to gain momentum. “Nine Lives” is a timely documentation of this rooting out. While it will do very little to reverse the trend, it will remain as a true and fascinating record of what has been eliminated long after its occurrence

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