A young woman turns away from her wealthy and loving family to follow the extreme path laid out for a Jain nun: her long thick hair is plucked out in an agonizing four hour ceremony. Unlike Buddhists or Hindu sadhus, she can never beg for food, just accept what is given to her, she will never see her family again, will never eat meat, dairy or root vegetables, will never ride in a vehicle, never touch money, never take any western medicine, never form an attachment to anything or anyone again. And the final attachment she will decide to relinquish is her body - when she undertakes the final vow, a fast unto death.
What are we to make of this story? To the western palate, schooled in rationalist humanist thought this is an appalling waste of a potentially rich life. But in India, she is a remarkable example of devotion, courage and determination.
And as the author of her portrait, William Dalrymple sits exactly on the cusp of both ways of thought, he’s being close-lipped about how his own heart responds to her story. The story of the Jain nun is one of the nine portraits to feature in Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Each of them as astonishing as the last, from the illiterate Rajasthani bard who knows by heart 25,000 verse poems, to the Dalit who becomes for two months of the year, a deity, then goes back to his day job as a prison warden.
It is a book that perhaps more than any of his numerous books and articles, most perfectly marries together his three callings as historian, journalist and travel writer.
“Religion is a very central topic anywhere in the world, but particularly in South Asia…Europe is the only place in the world where development has meant the death of God - everywhere else in the world, including China and the US, industrial and scientific progress has gone hand in hand with re-discovered religiosity.”
William Dalrymple has toured the world talking about his fascinating journey through some of the many marginal sacred worlds of India. And everywhere he’s gone, he’s taken some of the people featured in his book.
Invited by the International Institute of Asian Studies for a book reading, he brought along a pair of Baul musicians who sang their devotional songs in the unfamiliar but strangely befitting surroundings of the Lutheran Church in Amsterdam.
Also performing was the fusion musician Susheela Rahman, a Londoner from the Tamil Diaspora. Under the gothic arches of the church, a massive pipe organ as an unfamiliar backdrop, her powerful renditions of ancient Tamil hymns were particularly poignant.
Accordiong to Dalrymple, the grip of religions around the world is strengthening because in uncertain times of explosive economic growth, people seek certainties. India’s economy is set to overtake that of the United States by 2050. And alongside the consumerist explosion is a growing religiosity.
“The number of places of worship in South Asia exceeds the number of toilet facilities by three to one” jokes Dalrymple, citing one of the many statistics he has to back his theory.
The subject of Nine Lives is not the great mainstream religions of India, the textual hinduism of Shiva or Rama, or the fanatical Wahabbi or Deobandi forms of Islam, but what he calls the “small vehicles”. There is the Tamil idol maker, the 35th descendent of the great Chola sculptors whose statues go from being works of art to gods, once he’s carved in their eyes, the syncretic Sufis of Sindh who open the doors of their faith to Hindu and Muslim alike, or the Bauls of Bengal who find their way to God through music and who live in huts surrounded by skulls in cremation grounds.
“In the West, when someone falls through the cracks of society, they end up begging outside a supermarket on an old sleeping bag. In India, he laughs, “they go off to a cremation ground, build a hut of skulls and are worshipped as deities, which isn’t a bad solution to a universal problem.“