Through India’s Spiritual Landscape

The Wall Street Journal

  • OCTOBER 30, 2009

Much has changed since William Dalrymple moved to India in 1989 to write “City of Djinns,” his best-selling portrait of Delhi at the dawn of India’s economic transformation. For one, travel writing, characterized by the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby and Rysard Kapuscinski, is no longer the fashionable genre it was 20 years ago. “That has ended,” Mr. Dalrymple says of the huge advances and hype of times past, while sitting on the patio of his New Delhi farmhouse. For a moment, the sober note disrupts his animated and eloquent—if slightly dramatic—chatter.


[                    dalrymple1030                ] Ken Fallin

But travel writing is still invaluable, he argues, sipping a glass of pastis. “In an age when newspapers are shrinking, when celebrity journalism is taking over the little space that remains, when money to fund foreign bureaus is diminishing; travel writing provides a space to talk about cultural confusion, to negotiate differences in cultures outside the world of academic jargon.” His latest book, “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,” elegantly proves his point. The volume, released earlier this month in India and Britian, and scheduled for release in the United States next year, is a collection of nine true stories of religious devotees, with each life serving as a “keyhole” into how different religious paths have transformed in modern-day India.

The 44-year-old Scottish writer has chronicled India’s past and present for more than two decades, and his affection for the country is evident from a glance around his Delhi home. In his cluttered library, artwork ranging from a bust of Buddha to a large demon mask decorates the colorful room. We pass through the dining room and try not to disturb some bauls, or wandering Indian minstrels, who are friends and frequent house guests.

So why has he waited so long to tackle India’s questions of faith? “Indian religion is such a perilous minefield of clichés,” he laments from his a throne-like rattan chair. “Generations of Westerners have imposed themselves on Indian religion and in the end written books that more closely reflect the prejudices or aspirations or frustrations of Western society more so than anything to do with Indian religion.”

“Nine Lives” avoids that trap by letting the characters tell their stories in their own words. Mr. Dalrymple explains that the idea for the book sprang from a 1993 encounter with a young sadhu, or holy man, whom he met while hiking to the Himalayan temple of Kedarnath. Mr. Dalrymple was surprised to learn that the naked, ash-smeared man had an MBA and was a former high-flying sales manager with a Bombay consumer electrical company. This sadhu is mentioned in the book to give context to the nine eclectic characters Mr. Dalrymple profiles, which include a Tibetan Buddhist monk who took up arms when the Chinese invaded Tibet, and a devadasi, a woman “dedicated” to prostitution in the name of the Hindu goddess Yellamma.

When asked which story in “Nine Lives” made the deepest impression on him Mr. Dalrymple doesn’t hesitate. “The Jain nun,” he replies, referring to the story of a young woman who renounced the material world and her wealthy family to follow her faith. Although only in her thirties, she decides to slowly starve herself to death in the ultimate expression of Jain devotion.

“I still don’t know how to react to that. Is it heroism? A desperate waste of life? Partly because I haven’t worked out my own reaction is why it intrigues me so much,” confesses Mr. Dalrymple. “That was part of the fascination of this book. Each of these nine worlds contains its own moral universe. It’s very difficult to comment on them.”

The stories are linked by Mr. Dalrymple’s driving question: “How is each specific religious path surviving the changes India is currently undergoing?” he writes in the introduction. “What changes and what remains the same?” In the case of Rani Bai, a devadasi since the age of six, many of the changes are for the worse. The devadasi today do not enjoy the revered status they had several centuries ago; the lady Mr. Dalrymple profiled watched two daughters die from AIDS. She makes the case for the dignity of her profession—but neglects to tell Mr. Dalyrmple that she herself has HIV (he found out from an aid worker).

India’s booming materialism, evident from the growing numbers of expensive cars, palatial homes and shopping malls, may seem in conflict with spirituality. But the vacuum of materialism can create the need for spirituality. This has happened throughout history, notably in the lives of Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of modern Jainism, Mr. Dalrymple observes. In some ways, devout religious piety, is, “a reaction to the markedly unspiritual in every day life.”

India is by no means an atheistic country. Yet, contends Mr. Dalrymple, religion does not interfere with the process of government in spite of the influence of religious right political parties such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. “There’s a proud tradition of secularism here,” he says, pointing to the overwhelming victory of the secular Congress party in national elections earlier this year.

If Delhi was on the cusp of change in 1989, it is in the throes of transformation now. New highways and high-rises are sprouting from the landscape; cell phones are de rigueur; big companies, both foreign and domestic, are thriving in India.

But the transformation doesn’t bother this chronicler of India’s past and observer of its fast-shifting present. “In India the new doesn’t displace the old. It’s like the rings of a tree. It’s all there,” says Mr. Dalrymple. “The old colonels in Lodhi Garden [in New Delhi] are still there. The sadhus, Sufis and calligraphers are still there. There is a new generation of techies and more traffic jams, but it’s just an extra ring around the tree.”

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