Wednesday, December 15, 2010

William Dalrymple's 'Nine Lives'


I was waiting to catch my plane back home from Singapore when I caught sight of William Dalrymple's latest book, 'Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India', at a bookshop in Changi Airport. Interesting, I thought. Perhaps what grabbed my attention was the picture of a theyyam dancer on the cover. I felt that Appa would find it to be a good read and so conveniently, decided to 'gift' him the book. :D

The book certainly did not disappoint me. Revolving around the lives and faiths of nine different people across the country, it revealed several aspects of religion in India, which I wasn't even aware existed. The first 'life' is that of a Jain nun, who decides to undertake the sallekhana or ritual fasting to death. Other 'lives' include that of a Tibetan monk at Dharamsala, an idol maker at Swamimalai, a devadasi at Saundatti and a singer at Pabusar, dedicated to preserving a medieval Rajasthani epic. Dalrymple also covers various aspects of tantra at Tarapith in West Bengal and gives us a glimpse into the lives of 'Bauls', the nomadic singers of the state. However, two of the 'lives' that I was most drawn to were that of a theyyam dancer in Kannur and a Sufi saint in the city of Sehwan in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

In the 'Dancer of Kannur', Dalrymple portrays the life of Haridas, who earns a livelihood by playing three different roles: A jail warden during weekends, a laborer constructing wells during the rest of the week and a theyyam dancer during the season of this dance, unique to God's Own Country, between January and March. Being a Keralite myself, the sensitive portrayal of Haridas' life revealed a lot about my own land, which was hitherto unknown (or perhaps unnoticed) to (by) me. For instance, Dalrymple writes that Haridas as a laborer would dig wells at Namboodhiri households. Once the well is dug, he would be asked to leave the premises immediately. Being a Dalit, he is forbidden to drink from the very well he helped bring into existence! What's even more ironical is the reverential behavior of the same so-called upper caste people during the dance season when Haridas gets possessed by the gods as he begins to perform the theyyam. The brahmins who refuse to acknowledge his presence otherwise, bow down to his performance at the theyyam and even seek his blessings. Haridas confesses that he finds the life of the theyyam dancer to be the most rewarding, in terms of monetary compensation as well as mental satisfaction. What struck me about Haridas was the way he accepted things. Accepting circumstances as mere fate is one thing; acceptance and doing one's best to change unfavourable circumstances is another. At the end of the chapter, Haridas says, ' The other ten months are hard. But there is no way around it. That's reality, isn't it? That's life. Life is hard'. Haridas is just one amongst a million other people who struggle for a livelihood, day in, day out. But he's a true inspiration in the sense that we need to put in our best efforts, no matter what!

In 'The Red Fairy', Dalrymple narrates the story of a female Sufi saint in the Pakistani city of Sehwan. Lal Peri, as she is known, speaks about Sufism and a Sufi pir by the name of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. I discovered how Sufism combines the best of both Hinduism and Islam, and was struck by how Sufi saints are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Lal Peri's story once again reminded me that all faiths are essentially the same. Like my dad always says, 'If you're truly spiritual, religion doesn't matter'. What is disheartening is that most people refuse to recognize this fundamental truth.

Lal Peri narrates a powerful anecdote at the end of the chapter: One day, Lal Shahbaz Qalander was wandering in the desert with his friend. It was bitter cold, and there was no wood available to build a fire. So his friend suggested that Qalander turns himself into a falcon, so that he can get fire from hell. An hour later, Qalander returned, but with no fire. He said, 'There is no fire in hell. Everyone who goes there brings his own fire, and their own pain from this world'.

Heaven and hell are both within us...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

William Dalrymple's 'Nine Lives'


I was waiting to catch my plane back home from Singapore when I caught sight of William Dalrymple's latest book, 'Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India', at a bookshop in Changi Airport. Interesting, I thought. Perhaps what grabbed my attention was the picture of a theyyam dancer on the cover. I felt that Appa would find it to be a good read and so conveniently, decided to 'gift' him the book. :D

The book certainly did not disappoint me. Revolving around the lives and faiths of nine different people across the country, it revealed several aspects of religion in India, which I wasn't even aware existed. The first 'life' is that of a Jain nun, who decides to undertake the sallekhana or ritual fasting to death. Other 'lives' include that of a Tibetan monk at Dharamsala, an idol maker at Swamimalai, a devadasi at Saundatti and a singer at Pabusar, dedicated to preserving a medieval Rajasthani epic. Dalrymple also covers various aspects of tantra at Tarapith in West Bengal and gives us a glimpse into the lives of 'Bauls', the nomadic singers of the state. However, two of the 'lives' that I was most drawn to were that of a theyyam dancer in Kannur and a Sufi saint in the city of Sehwan in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

In the 'Dancer of Kannur', Dalrymple portrays the life of Haridas, who earns a livelihood by playing three different roles: A jail warden during weekends, a laborer constructing wells during the rest of the week and a theyyam dancer during the season of this dance, unique to God's Own Country, between January and March. Being a Keralite myself, the sensitive portrayal of Haridas' life revealed a lot about my own land, which was hitherto unknown (or perhaps unnoticed) to (by) me. For instance, Dalrymple writes that Haridas as a laborer would dig wells at Namboodhiri households. Once the well is dug, he would be asked to leave the premises immediately. Being a Dalit, he is forbidden to drink from the very well he helped bring into existence! What's even more ironical is the reverential behavior of the same so-called upper caste people during the dance season when Haridas gets possessed by the gods as he begins to perform the theyyam. The brahmins who refuse to acknowledge his presence otherwise, bow down to his performance at the theyyam and even seek his blessings. Haridas confesses that he finds the life of the theyyam dancer to be the most rewarding, in terms of monetary compensation as well as mental satisfaction. What struck me about Haridas was the way he accepted things. Accepting circumstances as mere fate is one thing; acceptance and doing one's best to change unfavourable circumstances is another. At the end of the chapter, Haridas says, ' The other ten months are hard. But there is no way around it. That's reality, isn't it? That's life. Life is hard'. Haridas is just one amongst a million other people who struggle for a livelihood, day in, day out. But he's a true inspiration in the sense that we need to put in our best efforts, no matter what!

In 'The Red Fairy', Dalrymple narrates the story of a female Sufi saint in the Pakistani city of Sehwan. Lal Peri, as she is known, speaks about Sufism and a Sufi pir by the name of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. I discovered how Sufism combines the best of both Hinduism and Islam, and was struck by how Sufi saints are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Lal Peri's story once again reminded me that all faiths are essentially the same. Like my dad always says, 'If you're truly spiritual, religion doesn't matter'. What is disheartening is that most people refuse to recognize this fundamental truth.

Lal Peri narrates a powerful anecdote at the end of the chapter: One day, Lal Shahbaz Qalander was wandering in the desert with his friend. It was bitter cold, and there was no wood available to build a fire. So his friend suggested that Qalander turns himself into a falcon, so that he can get fire from hell. An hour later, Qalander returned, but with no fire. He said, 'There is no fire in hell. Everyone who goes there brings his own fire, and their own pain from this world'.

Heaven and hell are both within us...