Friday, November 19, 2010

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
Knopf: 2010

I never come home from India with less than 25 kilos of luggage. I throw away clothes to make room for books. Therefore, let me save you the backache: this is the book you must read.

Presenting itself as nine "non-fiction short stories", 9 Lives portrays expressions of faith that are often romanticized or sensationalized, such as that of a tantric priestess, or ritual prostitute, or Tibetan soldier monk. As an obsessive reader of books about India, I can assure you that much of what is found here cannot be found anywhere else -- the alternatives are often sensationalist nonsense, or else dry as dust.

For example, the first chapter, about a Jain nun: I dare you to find elsewhere a readable brief narrative of Jainism that explains the basic beliefs and shows how they can continue to compel those that believe.

I've spent time in three of the places Dalrymple explores here -- Sravanabelagola, Dharamsala and Tarapith -- and still I learned so much about each.

(I admit I have an awful fear that the chapter about Tarapith -- the very most beautiful in the book -- will provoke a tourist boom in dusty Tarapith. In which case, let me warn you, the road is one of the most treacherous in India. Potential devotees are strongly advised to take the train.)

Dalrymple writes in spirited opposition to the forces that threaten to homogenize spirituality in India. Almost all of what he profiles here is in danger of being blotted out.

Particularly praise-worthy is Dalrymple's ability to get entirely out of the way of his subject. We learn nothing whatsoever about Dalrymple's personal spiritual journey -- and I mean that as very high praise.

If you love this book, the obvious next step would be to read Wendy Doniger's spectacular "The Hindus: An Alternative History": a beautiful service to Hinduism and human civilization, for which she has been, of course, thunderously condemned by fundamentalist panjandrums.

May the spirituality of India always bloom as richly and strangely and powerfully as Dalrymple finds it blooming here.

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