“Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” by William Dalrymple
This is a story about nine people that have nine completely different religious paths, each one with an unforgettable true story. Written by a historian who has explored India for 25 years to cover about its history and vast religious traditions.
More specifically, it is a story about a Jain nun, a blind minstrel, a Tantric practitioner, a Tibetan monk, an idol maker, a devadasi (temple prostitute), a Sufi mystic, a Rajasthani medieval poem, and an ordinary prison warden who for 3 months a year is worshipped as an incarnate deity.
Through each one of these nine lives, the book teaches us about the many different religions that live side by side to form a colourful society. And in between the stories we can find the authentic feel of India, the mash up of cultures, the stark contrast between the caste, the festivals, the extreme poverty, the wandering monks and nuns and sadhus, the spirit-summoning rituals, the brutal politics, and the ordinary lives caught in between two worlds of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers.
And the stories are all very human. It shows their aspiration and inspiration, their day to day struggle, their different path to peace or enlightenment. It shows the emotions behind the mask and costume, the injustice they are experiencing, with some heart breaking stories as well as some heartwarming stories, all of which provide so many lessons in life no matter what the religious medium is.
They say nothing beats visiting India and experience it yourself, as you will get inspired and/or appreciate life more. Well, reading this book is a close second. And for the longest time I thought it was a positive tone through and through, but now after reading the book I can also sense the contrasting attribute for the second part of that sentence. Yes, India is spiritually inspiring, but it is only after seeing the harshness of life in the country that we can also learn to appreciate our lives back at home a little bit more. And to that end, the book has done such a tremendous job illustrating all the flavours of reality in the sub-continent.