Monday, May 14, 2012

Nine Lives - William Dalrymple

And finally a William Dalrymple book! Nine Lives (Bloomsbury, Rs. 399, 284 p) did not disappoint and I could only marvel and wonder at the enormous patience, love and research that the Delhi based Scotsman William Dalrymple has not only for life, for his work and for India, as he reels off detailed and in depth information about an India we Indians would never know of. Living here in India we take many things for granted and somehow seem to live only on the surface (I speak for myself). Beneath it all everything is boiling and we try not to upset the equilibrium by sticking to our own space. But for Dalrymple and many of his ilk India is to be probed and explored and he does that in great fashion in 'Nine Lives' where he meets nine different people who live lives that are steeped in the many layered religions of India and the professions that go with them.Through these nine lives we see an India that gives a glimpse of the enormous complexity and knowledge that lies beneath ritual, custom, caste, profession - all culminating into the search for God

Dalrymple starts with a Jain Mataji whom he meets at the Bahubali temple in Sravanabelogala in Karnataka. The Mataji is a young lady who renounces her business family in Ranchi to take up diksha or renunciation of the world. From plucking out each hair by the roots to wandering around the countryside with no shelter on their head on foot, following the strictest rules and regulations, the tale of the Jain nuns is told in great detail through the life of the young Mataji. Then we move to Kannur in Kerala where we meet Hari Das, a  dalit theyyam dancer who performs the rigorous theyyam dances in season and is a prison warder for the other months in the year. The theyyam dancers who perform their dances all night, with their take on the caste system are patronised by the higher castes and they are seen as the mediums of the divine with healing powers. Hari Das considers himself a medium as he heals and solves problems for even the higher caste brahmins.

We move on to Saunditti in Karnataka and meet the daughters of Yellamma, the devdasis, where young girls are dedicated to the god as slaves of god. Though the girls are turned over into flesh trade they are worshipped as the daughters of Yellamma even by the high castes. The story of Rani bai who was one such devdasi and later sold off to a brothel in Mumbai and her dreams of retiring with a dairy despite knowing that she has AIDS is the third. From Karnataka we travel to Rajasthan and Pabusar where we meet Mohan Bhopa, the singer of Pabuji's epic, a version of Ramayana, which goes on for 5 nights of 8 hours each as he recites and performs the 4000 line poem. Coming from the lowly Nayak caste of cattle herders Mohan Bhopa is no more, but his tradition is being carried on by his family.

In Sehwan, Sindh on the other side of the border is Lal Peri or the Red Fairy, a lady with a club who inhabits the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz. Through her life we know how the young Muslim girl ran away from Bihar to escape Hindu-Muslim riots and then to Bangladesh and finally to Sindh on a vision. The shrine has since been demolished by Wahabbi hardliners who believe that Sufism is not Islam. Then we meet Passang, the seventy year old Tibetan monk in McLeodganj, Dharamsala, who was driven out from his monastery when the Chinese occupied Tibet. He took up arms to fight the Chinese but had to flee as the Chinese intensified their search for him after killing his mother. He escorted the Dalai Lama as he sped into exile into India from Tibet to escape the Chinese and then joined the Indian army and fought the Bangladesh war. The warrior monk still feels guilty and restless for the killings he had to commit and has now returned to a life of penance, deeply unhappy at the thought that h has to live like a refugee when his own country has been forcibly occupied by the Chinese.

Then we head down South near Trichinapoly to the holy town of Swamimalai to meet Srikanda Stapthy, the 23rd in a line of idol makers for the temples. The sacred lineage has been passed down father to son for 700 years and the maker of Idols whose ancestors made idols for the Chola kings knows he is superior to other idol makers because he has been passed on the knowledge of the Shilpa Shastra which is followed by them to the proportions given. Srikanda believes that only brahmins can bring the divine into the idols as it has been said so in the shilpa shastra and that there is something in their blood which makes the idols what they are. From the puritanical idol maker we head to Tarapith in Bengal to meet the tantric Manisha Ma Bhairavi who shows Dalrymple how to drink from a human skull. The tantriks live in cremation grounds and are known for their tantrik practices which involve animal sacrifices, sexual rituals and all that is seen as ungodly by the higher castes. Manisha Ma lives in with Tapan sadhu after she ran away from her home in Calcutta where she would get into trances or get possessed by the Goddess. One such trance in a temple got her deified by the temple priest but Manisha made off from Calcutta, leaving her three daughters to find her calling.

The last of the nine lives is that of the blind minstrel Kanui, a baul, or a singing mendicant. All baulis meet at Kenduli near Shantiniketan in Bengal during Makar Sankranti for a festival. It was here that we meet Kanui and his friends Debdas and Panab who sing their songs and dance in a wild and abandoned manner of the baulis. In their songs are preserved old teachings on breathing, sex, asceticism, philosophy and divine inner knowledge. The bauls wander along with no possessions and are known to use sexuality to reach the divinity of inner self.

Dalrymple's research and his knowledge of the world at large makes this book all the more readable as he gives the backdrop of each of these practices, professions, rituals the proper setting to understand them better. He is not judgmental and speaks to both the sufi singer and the Muslim cleric who bans sufism. I ask myself one question - why has not such work been done in India before? And I think I know the answer too. It is easier to delve into an India that lies within from the eyes of an outsider than that of an insider. There is much we fear that we might upset of the fragile balance we seem to live in, be it walking into the mosque or the church or the temple, questioning certain practices and speaking to certain people who may or may not be accepted in that society. Fears that are needless perhaps but nevertheless fears that are true. But full credit to Dalrymple for doing that and for bringing closer an India that I would not have known, through these nine lives.

What amazes one is the method, the certainty that each of these marginalised devotees adopt while searching for the divine (except for the idol maker all else live hard lives with no or little money or comfort) in whatever they are doing. The tantrik drinker from human skulls is convinced of the divine just as the puritanical idol maker is, the Jain nun who abhors all forms of violence is just as the blood drinking theyyam dancer is - they all believe that they are the medium and that they are only allowing God to express themselves through their devotion.

These are but nine lives and India for sure has hundreds and thousands of such lives, each with a rich repository of knowledge, culture, song and dance, gods and customs, rituals and beliefs. And so we move on, wondering at the country that is India, at what it holds within in its unfathomable depths. To Dalrymple then who does a good job of writing well and making our history so interesting, a job well done.  Worth a read for all those who wish to know more about an India we normally do not encounter.

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