Divine Madness


Nine Lives : In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William DalrympleWilliam Dalrymple is often called a travel writer, but since he has lived in India for years, his writing falls into another, deeper category.

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, which does take him from one end of India to the other (as well as across the border into Pakistan), gives us intimate portraits of nine extraordinary believers who told him their stories.

Striving for the Nearly Impossible

I cried when I finished the first chapter, “The Nun’s Tale,” which tells about a Jain nun who has been practicing renunciation, non-attachment, and an extreme kind of non-violence for 24 years. Dalrymple notices that she looks sad and wistful when he first sees her. As he gets to know her, she admits that she has not always been able to remain detached after all.

Diverse, Compelling Tales of Individuals

Other people in the book include a maker of Hindu idols, who is the latest in a long line of sculptors reaching back 700 years. His own son would rather become a computer engineer.

Another Hindu man is a dancer for three months a year, and in trance is regarded as a god. The rest of the year he is an untouchable well-digger and a jail warden.

A Tibetan Buddhist in “The Monk’s Tale” had in the past renounced his vows and taken up arms to defend his faith and country. Now he lives in Dharamsala near the Dalai Lama, seeking to atone for his sins by praying, meditating, and making prayer flags.

A single Muslim woman has sought refuge at a Sufi shrine after years of exposure to violence and floods.

The Common Thread

Dalrymple explains something about each religion, art, and practice, as well as the ways in which they are all changing and being challenged by the modern world. But what is most gripping is the story of each individual, often on the margins of society, carried away by faith.

Joining the Ranks of Positive Reviewers

I found this a fascinating, and also moving, work. Some of the material was disturbing, but I would agree with the reviewer from The Sunday Times of London, who wrote that this was “Beautifully written, ridiculously erudite, and … reveals Dalrymple to be remarkably warm- and open-hearted.”

Author Bio:

Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile. Her reading interests include archaeology and mysteries, among other things.

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