Nine Lives by William Dalrymple – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India


Nine Lives is the second book by William Dalrymple that I read. While I was attending Jaipur Literature festival, I also happened to briefly meet the author. Being recently launched, there was a lot of buzz around this book. And almost all leading periodicals who publish book reviews had written about this book. The subtitle of the book says ‘In Search of Sacred in Modern India”, it is actually Indian subcontinent that he has covered.

There are nine stories of nine different people, following a path of spirituality in their very own way, with an immense faith in their path. Some of them are carrying the tradition of their families or communities for generations together. Given the huge change that Indian psyche is undergoing, some of these traditions are at their terminal end. And may become history with the last generation practicing them. Some of the stories cover unusual faiths followed by closed communities. Most of these are known. But not many people have tried to break into the communities and have a detailed look at them. Some of them are well-known faiths. And the author looks at the personal journey of people who chose to tread the path of this faith.

Nine Lives In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Overall the stories are about faith, something that was either inborn or came from within during some phase of life. For all these people faith drove their lives. And regardless of where their faith led them, they never let go of their faith. There are times when it seems they have gone against what they are expected to do. But eventually, all the pieces fit in and you see the underlying faith. If you have been born and brought up in India, you may know about few stories at least. But if you are a western all these stories would intrigue you. And may seem like something out of the world as these things are not very common in the western world.

Narratives are simple, and as the author says he has kept himself at the minimal while telling the story. What he has essentially done is gathered the story first hand from the practitioner, understood his or her faith and its psychology, a personal history of how they were led to this path and what keeps them going. He then adds the history and cultural & social relevance around the story to put the story in context for the readers. Each story is independent and comes from a different part of the Indian subcontinent. I loved the Lal Pari story which explained the popular Sindhi Qawaali for me after I have heard it thousands of times.

Nine Lives is an easy read that takes you through the not so ordinary journeys of some ordinary and not so known people. If you think a bit, they may make you look at your own faith and see how it impacts and drives your life. It is a kind of travel writing where the author goes beyond the surface, scratches the surface and shows you what he sees beneath the obvious.

Read Nine Lives for the interesting stories that are there somewhere around you but might have missed meeting your eye.

Buy this book – Nine Lives In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple at Amazon India.

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  1. I have read the story about Devdasis from an excerpt. Have heard mixed reviews on the book, will probably pick it up for reading sometime.

  2. I liked the first story the most about the two Jaina nuns. But overall, it is an excellent book, even hard core Philosophers would find interesting…

    • My experience is that we tend to like what is new to us. I have seen Jain Sadhavis very closely so I did not find anything new there, but Yellamma I read about first time in this book.


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