The further the great Indian middle class moves away from organised religion, the stronger spiritualism and religious philosophy seem to become in the Other India.
William Dalrymple discovers this from the lives of a young Jain nun who sets on the path of ritual fasting unto death, a prison warder who is untouchable for 10 months a year but is worshipped for the remaining two months when he becomes a Theyyam dancer, a married woman who leaves her family to spend the rest of her life as a tantric near a cremation ground, and other similar, strange stories.
To the Western reader, Nine Lives, Dalrymple's first travelogue in a decade, offers an insight into the pagan cultures popular in the different corners of the sub-continent. Especially about the numerous deities that are still worshipped, while the ‘Ram'-ifaction or nationalization of Hinduism is on in urban India.
"It is like applying to the village sarpanch (headman) -- rather than asking the Prime Minister," says Mohan Bhopa, one of the last hereditary singers of a 600-year-old Rajasthani poem, about worshipping their local deity Pabuji. The 4,000-line poem, The Epic of Pabuji, is about the tale of the local deity's heroism and is recited only during night.
The travelogue follows the lives of nine people and their view of guilt, atonement, desires and death.
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In the first story, the Jain nun gives up her family and desires; plucks her hair taking the diksha (ritual of initiation) and years later, sees her close friend take Sallekhana - a fast unto death.
In another story, a Tibetan monk who breaks the monastic vows to take up weapons to defend his religion, spends his last years printing and selling prayer flags to the pilgrims there.
In telling their stories, the writer has ensured that he is not judgmental and lets the characters speak for themselves. For, these nine people follow very different and even contradictory paths.
While the Bauls "seek to channel the mysteries of sexuality and the sexual urge as a way of reaching and revealing the divinity of the inner self", the Jain nun's efforts are to shed all "attachments in this illusory world".
So, does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world? Though Dalrymple finds an affirmative answer to this question, it seems to be only a matter of time before these unique cultures become history.
Except for a few like the Bauls, most others seem to have taken the path of spiritualism as a result of socio-economic conditions.
Mainstream Hinduism wiping out local faiths: William Dalrymple
The life of the Lal Peri Mastani, a lady fakir at a Sindhi dargah in Pakistan reflects the harsh realities the lower class people and local culture face. The fakir is in fact a triple refugee -- first as a Muslim, she is driven out of Bihar to East Pakistan; then in 1971 from Bangladesh to Pakistan; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in a shrine in Pakistan. And now the Sufi shrine itself is facing threat from the Taliban.
Similarly, Yellama in Karnataka is dedicated to god as a Devadasi (temple prostitute) so that her family could get some money. Though Yellama hates this, she ends up initiating her two daughters into the same system years later -- both of her children die of AIDS.
The tales themselves show how these cultures and practices are entwined with the social class and systems. Only women from the lowest castes become Devadasis now, while Dalit men get an opportunity to be worshipped by the upper castes by becoming Theyyam dancers.
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On the other hand, Mohan Bhopa, the singer of epics, and Srikanda Stpathy, whose family has been making idol of gods for 700 years, insist their work is hereditary. As a result, there are no couples left to sing the epic of Pabuji in Rajasthan after the death of Mohan, and Srikanda doubts whether his son, who is interested in computers, would carry forward the family tradition.
In search of the sacred in modern India, celebrated writer Dalrymple stumbles upon cultures that are dying due to the dominance of mainstream religions. Or in other cases, no one is interested is practising them because of social stigma or because not everyone who is interested can afford to do that.
Will Dalrymple or any other writer be able to revisit these practices 25 years from now? Unlikely.
In this sense, Nine Lives is a very timely book that tells Western Indophiles what is still left in the country, and cautions those within of the threat faced by local practices and cultures.
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, Rs 499, pp284