I have just finished reading another exceptional book by William Dalrymple, "Nine Lives : In Search of the Sacred in Modern India". It is an essential book, that anyone interested in India's unique culture and spirituality, should read.
It is a collection of nine stories from nine corners of India, on nine different personalities. What gives this book its unique character and feel, is the art of story telling. The voice of the characters is manifest here, and it is through them, that the reader is taken on a wonderful spiritual and humane journey.
The book opens with "The Nun's Tale", a touching story of a Jain nun. Jainism, a religion, founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, is little known outside India. Even in India, it has a minuscule following of about six million as compared to the one billion following of Hinduism and five hundred million following of its contemporary religion, Buddhism. However, Jainism has the highest degree of literacy of any religious following throughout India and it is one of the most richest religion, based on per capita income. The Jain religion has an unique way to end life, called "salekhanna", which any Jain ascetic monk or even lay worshipers can embrace, if they feel, their time to end life has come.
The nun in the first story, is on her way to embrace "salekhanna", and we get a glimpse of her life, both as a lay Jain worshiper as well as a nun, in the monastic order. It is difficult to believe, that each and every character in this book, the chief nine protagonists are real men and women, who lead ordinary lives like us.
The most inspiring story I found was The Monk's Tale. It is the tale of a Buddhist monk, Tashi Passang, who now resides in Dharmashala, a Tibetan enclave in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This monk, had taken up arms in order to protect Tibet during the Chinese aggression of 1950, thus breaking one of the inviolable code of the Buddhist dharma, non violence. He was later drafted into the Indo-Tibetan Border Police,or ITBP, and helped India win the Indo-Pak war of 1972, out of which the present nation of Bangladesh was created.
His story is one of great resilience, and an inner-conflict, which plagued a monk and his path taken to come back and search the true meaning of Buddhism. It is indeed an awe inspiring story.
There is yet another story that comes from a region outside of India's political borders, but very much, within the vast spirit of the land, Sindh. This is the story of "Lal Pari", The Red Fairy, and tells the tale of a disciple of the Sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalander. This lady, the "Lal Pari", is actually of Indian origin. How a simple, rural girl from the state of India, became a Sufi disciple in Pakistan, is not only interesting, but hair raising as well.
Each and every tale in this book, carries with it an unique human journey, the journey of human spirit, and you are left encouraged and inspired by the tales in this book. The stories, take the reader on a colourful journey of India, and the reader finds an inner conflict taking place in modern India, between the forces of development, reason and science, and the forces of spiritualism, religion and conventions. Somewhere, the reader starts empathizing with the characters in each of the tale.
As in the West, where people have lost their touch with their inner self, as religion and society becomes more and more materialistic, India is still trying to hold onto its roots of age old wisdom, conventions and religious beliefs, as they are more and more challenged by Western convictions.
An amazing work. I would urge each and every body, to take a little patience, (the book is 251 pages, excluding Glossary, Introduction and Index) and read Nine Lives. It will take you on a journey that is incredible like the land itself.