For his new book, Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, author William Dalrymple left the archives in Delhi, Rangoon and Lahore, his address of 10 years and took to the dusty, meandering roads that would lead him to India’s devout.
“It was like coming up for air. I felt free from the gruelling research for my previous monstrous tomes. It was fun being back on the road, smoking chillums with the Bauls till 3 am,” said Dalrymple, who has authored travel books such as City of Djinns, In Xanadu and From the Holy Mountain.
The book tracks nine compelling stories that are representative of the India ‘suspended between modernity and tradition’.
The author’s chosen ones have in common, either an extreme devotion to their varied faiths or dual lives, one of which is informed by religion. “I’ve enjoyed having each individual get on with his/her own story rather than comment on religion as an institution,” said Dalrymple (44). “I stumbled on extraordinary stories, which to me were as satisfying as any fictional narrative. But I gradually became extraneous to them.”
The historian’s “unplanned, organic” meandering took him to Kolkata, Kerala, Kashmir and Chennai. The journeys were made over 16 years and the routes revisited several times so as to nail the essence of these personal histories. “For the nine that you read, there were 90 interviews that didn’t go past the first page. It’s an intimate territory underlined by some great tragedy. There are also some frustrating stories that didn’t work out despite repeated efforts,” said the Delhi-based author.
One such thwarted story was about a Kashmiri Hizbul Mujahideen who became a Sufi on the shores of Dal Lake.
In Nine Lives, Dalrymple has opted for simple, straightforward prose that harks back to his pen as a journalist. The author cites Bruce Chatwin, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and Daniyal Moinuddin as influences for this “clear piece of glass narrative”.
“India has an incredible wellspring of fine anthropological and scholarly writing on religion but no one has tried to make it remotely approachable,” Dalrymple said.
“As a firang, I’m aware I’m running closer to the perceived stereotype of white man with a notebook keen on exoticising the subject. But I’m not a westerner imposing my own frustrations on people’s religious choices. I simply think it’s a legitimate subject.”
But the author is already longing to return to the familiarity of the archives. “After this year of travel, I’m ready to be a historian again.”