Nine Lives: Book Review by Asha Seth

Author: William Dalrymple| Genre: Non-Fiction | Pages: 275


In portraits of people we might otherwise never know William Dalrymple distills his twenty-five years of travel in India to explore the challenges faced by practitioners of traditional forms of faith in contemporary India. For two months a year, a man in Kerala divides his time between jobs as a prison warden and a well-builder and his calling as an incarnate deity. A temple prostitute watches her two daughters die from AIDS after entering a trade she regards as a sacred calling. A Jain nun recalls the pain of watching her closest friend ritually starve herself to death.

Image Credit: Goodreads

“How can you read about lives of those that don’t matter to you; let alone you’ve never known,” quipped my sister. Coming from someone who doesn’t read, I was not surprised.

While I had just finished reading ‘Koh-i-noor’ from the same author, a friend was reading ‘Nine Lives’ which was on my TBR and I was hoping to start next. I don’t generally ask people how is a book they’re reading, whether they like it or not.

Is there the slightest chance they’d pick it up next, is what I end up asking instead.

The Nine Lives reader said, he would only if he had finished reading all the books there are to read. A smart reply indeed. I got him to promise to give me the book once he was done.

The opportunity presented itself six months later.


Nine Lives is a book you need to be sure what you’re signing up for, when you plan to read it. It is not your regular book, nor is it something that will let you off the hook any time soon. It is the distressing unveiling of paradigm shifts in the lives of few people the author has encountered over a span of 25 years; people who left such a strong enough impression that he felt compelled enough to immortalize them in his words.

What does faith mean to an Indian and how far would one go to establish themselves in the faith they follow is what this book is about. Religion being the over arching theme, it casts focus primarily on that segment of the society that is struggling to hold grounds amidst a rapidly transforming modern India. Life in the inner circles of the lesser-known crowd of this vast landscape called India still largely tilts on their beliefs; whether that is superstition or myth, and forms their basis of livelihood, in most cases.

The 9 stories:

Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain nun suffers in vain watching her best friend succumb to death.
Life of Haridas, a Theyyam dancer, is spent nine months as a labourer and prison warder, and rest three enacting as incarnation of God, possessed by the deity.
Rani Bai, a prostitute, recognised as incarnations of the deity Yellamma who is then worshipped and offered gifts.
Mohan Bhopa is a Singer of Epics who is worshipped by villagers for their own and their cattle’s well-being.
Lal Peri is a wandering Sufi fakir who beliefs she doesn’t really belong to one land since being uprooted from Bihar, then In Pakistan, finally landing in India.
Tashi Passang fights alongside others in the Chinese invasion of Tibet and later serves penance by making prayer flags in Dharamshala.
Skanda Stpathy, the maker of idols, tells of his life as an idol maker and the art and requisites of idol-making as per Hindu shastras.
Munisha Ma Bhairavi talks of her life, living in a Hindu cremation ground, amidst animal sacrifices, blood offerings, skulls, as a worshipper of Goddess Tara.
Kanai is the singing minstrel who loses his vision to smallpox very early in life. He abandons his family to seek the almighty for he believes one can meet God through singing and dancing.

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The Review:

The author doesn’t narrate but lets the characters tell their tales with absolutely no hint of prejudice played on his part and that makes this an interesting read, if it ever tries to be one that is.

Deeply descriptive, “Nine Lives” is the author’s 25 years of travel (through different parts of India) summarised into a travelogue. Despite being modestly inspiring, this is perhaps, my least favorite book of the author simply because I couldn’t take away much from the book; unlike Kohinoor or City of Djinns or The Last Mughal. But then, maybe this book is just for the reader to sink into the lives of the people captured within the pages and then leave them behind as you close the book. Although, this is travel journalism at its best, there isn’t much to appease a reader’s heart.

Read more about the author, William Dalrymple.

If you happen to read ‘Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’ or have already read it, do share your thoughts below.

©Asha Seth