Correction to This Article
This review misstated the time period used by bard and village shaman Mohan Bhopa to perform the ancient poem "The Epic of Pabuji." It is performed dusk to dawn over five nights, not dawn to dusk.

William Dalrymple's "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India"

By Marie Arana
Sunday, August 1, 2010


In Search of the Sacred

In Modern India

By William Dalrymple

Knopf. 276 pp. $26.95

Three years ago, Goldman Sachs predicted that India's gross national output would quadruple in 10 years and, by 2050, overtake that of the United States. Today, India is on the verge of besting Japan to become the world's third-largest economic power. According to the CIA, whether you count people or workers or billable cellphones, India is second only to China. Which is why, despite staggering poverty -- the average annual income is $1,040 -- its consumption of cars and crude oil promises to soar to unimaginable magnitudes.

So much for the arithmetic.

But what is India, exactly? Who are its people? It is certainly not the monolithic nation the British once wanted us to believe it was. Nor is it the sea of mutually hostile Hindus and Muslims that contemporary historians so often describe. As William Dalrymple shows in his strikingly colorful new book, to be Indian is to inhabit a carnival of strangely colliding worlds, a profusion of identities with sharply defined regional variants. Nowhere is this more evident than in the country's spiritual life.

"While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom," Dalrymple writes, "much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly." Bollywood may try to persuade us that the Hindu epics are neatly homogenous -- that there is one " 'national' Ramayana myth" -- but in reality, Indian legends are interpreted in radically different ways depending on where you look in the country. Indeed, the historian Romila Thapar has argued that it is precisely Bollywood's (or colonialism's) model of "syndicated Hinduism" that threatens to drive India's self-contained cults to extinction. As the country races toward progress and redefinition, its small gods and goddesses stand to be crushed by the "hyper-masculine hero deities" of the big screen.

That clash between tradition and momentum is what Dalrymple seeks to capture on these pages. "Nine Lives" is a collection of portraits depicting nine worshipers who practice wildly different forms of devotion in a vortex of dizzying change. Part travelogue, part reportage, part anthropology, the book hews to a theme that has long fascinated Dalrymple: how cultures in peril survive. It's a subject he knows well. A resident of India and England, he is the author of a number of notable books on history and travel, among them: "City of Djinns," a delightfully entertaining narrative of New Delhi; "The Last Mughal," about the British in 19th-century South Asia; and "From the Holy Mountain," which recounts a 6th-century trip through Byzantium.

In this book, however, Dalrymple looks at India's religions through starkly dissimilar lives. In Hari Das, a dancer who is venerated for his skill in impersonating Lord Vishnu, Dalrymple gives us a vivid cameo of the caste system. For nine months of every year, this Dalit -- or Untouchable -- is a manual laborer who digs wells and works as a prison guard. But for three months starting in December, the man is a living god. "We bring blessings to the village and villagers, and exorcise evil spirits," the performer explains. "Though we are all Dalits even the most bigoted and casteist Namboodiri Brahmins worship us, and queue up to touch our feet." The spiritual dances he performs are meant to impart Vishnu's wisdom and inspire the Brahmins to discard their arrogant prejudices, but every March, when the season draws to a close, Hari Das puts away his costume, heads back to the jail and re-enters the rigid, oppressive hierarchy that keeps him in biting poverty. There is little chance that his children will want to do the same.

Often, as Dalrymple tells tales of religion, it is India's social structure that emerges in high relief. There is Mohan Bhopa, for instance, a bard and village shaman who, though completely illiterate, is one of the last hereditary singers of the great ancient poem "The Epic of Pabuji." It takes him five full dawn-to-dusk performances to recite the entire work, and there are precious few artists in India who can do it. As Dalrymple makes clear, it is in the hands of these unlettered men that the future of an art form hangs: "The illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not," he writes, and so, with state-mandated education and progress, the number of singers able to master the 600-year-old work has only diminished. Literacy, in other words, is killing India's oral traditions.

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