Where new writing finds its voice

The Extraordinary Persistence of Faith

Amabel Barraclough


Amabel Baraclough talks to William Dalrymple about his new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

I ended up interviewing the travel writer and historian William Dalrymple in the back of a cab as we drove through the streets of central London. It was the first real day of autumn: a chill wind blew outside and it was prematurely dark as the rain clouds gathered. We had originally scheduled our interview after his talk at Savoy Place he previous evening, but the queue of ladies at the book signing had stretched far into the evening. Each had an anecdote to share with him – their trip to Varanasi, their tour of Rajasthan – which they would describe breathily, leaning over him as he scribbled his signature in their copy of his new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

The following evening, ‘the most admired travel writer today… the witty, eagle-eyed, industrious and preternaturally talented William Dalrymple’ as the Financial Times described him, came bustling towards me in the reception of the Charlotte Street Hotel. Clad in the colours of the tropics and flinging a saffron scarf over his shoulder, he seemed out of place in the grey streets of London: a brightly plumed specimen, lost amongst the city pigeons.

‘I’m so busy when I’m in London, I hardly have time to think,’ he tells me, out of breath, as we bundle into the back of the car waiting to take us to the British Library where he is giving another talk that evening. ‘It’s not usually like this. I usually have a very slow life where nobody bothers me.’

Dalrymple is only visiting London briefly to promote Nine Lives. He lives with his wife and children on a farm outside Delhi where, he proudly tells me, they grow their own vegetables, make -labneh from their goats’ milk, and have hens for eggs but not for eating, as they are too pretty. Modern India, however, has been racing at breakneck speed towards his homestead. The boom town of Gurgaon was five kilometres away when he took the lease on the farmhouse; six years later, its apartment blocks, call centres and main attraction, the largest shopping mall in Asia, have galloped right up to the garden gate.

In the last fifteen years he has produced three books about Indian history and politics, remaining home and library-bound. Whilst immersed in India’s past, inevitably he has born witness to the country’s explosive growth and development. According to CIA figures India’s economy will be larger than the United States’ by 2050, and Dalrymple is well aware that his adopted homeland is a country in rapid transformation. 

His first travel book set in India, City of Djinns (1994), traced the tangled weave of Delhi’s past, charting the remnants of history still surviving amongst the inhabitants of the present. His writing is distinctive in its ability to unravel history and to travel through it, rather than just record it. Thus, his latest book does not take us on a clear geographical journey: the nine biographies are set ‘in the places between modernity and tradition’. Returning to the open road and to this somewhat maligned genre for the first time in many years, he seeks out the people rather than the places which traverse these colliding worlds. 

In the introduction we meet a tantric feeder of skulls who lives among the funeral ghats of Birbhum. ‘Tapan Goswami was exactly the kind of person I was looking for with my journalist’s weakness for the exotic and sensational,’ Dalrymple explains. ‘He feeds dahl and rice to the skulls of young virgins and restless suicides to use their power for his own tantric ends. I found him about to make a sacrifice surrounded by the funeral ghats as if set up for a film.’

Tapan boasts that he has the best collection of skulls in those parts, but told Dalrymple that he was thinking about packing it in, giving his collection away and joining his sons in New Jersey. ‘That conjunction is something I came across over and over again in the course of my research for this book.’

Though this particular story may seem macabre and exotic, Dalrymple is not poking around voyeuristically in the remains of India’s spiritual underbelly. He has made a careful selection of biographies and through his interviews unpicks their flummoxing paradoxes. ‘Each life is intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis.’ He aims to humanise rather than romanticise his subjects, consciously choosing those who are connected to the darker side of life, and incorporating history and politics, areas usually avoided by those writing about religion and spirituality.

Tashi Passang was a young monk in Tibet, but when the Chinese invaded in the 1950s he renounced his vows and took up armed resistance against the occupiers. There is only one reason in Buddhism that justifies this action: the protection of the dharma, that is, of the religion itself. 

Tashi’s is a life torn apart by the maelstrom of history: his mother was tortured to death by the Chinese troops who were searching for him, he fled with the Dalai Lama to India, then vowed to seek revenge and joined the Indian army with its promise of a war against the Chinese. But he found himself fighting in Bangladesh instead, the meaning of his personal battle washed away in the ever-shifting tide of politics. Realising the futility of anger, he returned to his religion, finding solace in a monastic way of life in exile in Dharamsala.  

So for some, faith is a refuge from hardship, persecution and loss. For others, however, corrupted forms of religious traditions are their downfall. Rani Bai is a devadasi. Dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma as a girl in an ancient practice that is now illegal but still very common, from puberty she has had to sell her body. The role of the devadasi comes from an ancient tradition of courtly concubines, but the occupation has lost its original trappings of education and high culture, and now this community has the highest rate of AIDS in India.

The collision of modernity with these ancient ways of life is almost invariably destructive and a fear of traditions soon to be lost permeates these stories. Srikanda Stpathy comes from an ancient line of sculptors and can trace his ancestors back to the legendary Chola bronze makers. He brings the gods to life in each idol he carves, but his sons want to go to Bangalore to study IT and he doesn’t feel he has the right to dissuade them. Dalrymple points out that the sacred in India is not manifest in something intangible and unchangeable, but entrenched in father-son lineages, and caste-defined occupations. It is these structures that are being metamorphosed in India’s rapidly changing society.

There is an anthropological quality to this book, Dalrymple acting only as a frame to the series of biographies. Since he wrote In Xanadu (1989), his first book, the place and taste for travel writing has shifted: ‘I wrote In Xanadu at the height of the eighties when travel writing highlighted the narrator; his adventures were the subject and the people he met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. In Nine Lives I have tried to invert this... The stories were so extraordinary, each one a mini-novel or screenplay in itself that it soon became clear that the book would not include buying samosas in the bus station and all that rubbish that filled my previous books.’

I ask him if the age of travel writing, which follows ‘epic journeys… conveying the raw intoxication of travel’ has passed? Has this style, inherited from the nineteenth century and more recent figures like Newby and Chatwin, become redundant? ‘There is no prescription, whatever works, works, but I do feel now there is a need for specialisation.’ Dalrymple sees a new more significant role for travel writing today, which is in part created by a gap left in journalism: ‘Day by day newspapers are getting thinner, foreign coverage is getting cut back. Rating wars encourage crappy celebrity journalism. We are in an age of imperialism with the West dominating in Asia and jingoistic propaganda is busy creating inaccurate stereotypes of these countries.’

The need for thoughtful, intelligent observation of other parts of the world has never been greater, and today the travel writer’s eye must be trained to observe the nuances of complex societies, to investigate the weft and warp of history, politics and religion. Dalrymple has this breadth of knowledge and an enthrallment with what goes on ‘under the carpet of history’ that allows him to incorporate the often manifold forms of truth he comes across. Nine Lives is in many ways a culmination of his way of life and his life as a writer – he has become a repository of knowledge of the subcontinent, but it is a surprisingly unegotistical work considering the achievements of his career.

We pull over in a lay-by opposite the British Library and my time is nearly up. Hastily I ask what originally led him to become a travel writer? ‘I never went away much, a holiday was to go to Mull [he grew up on the other side of Scotland, in North Berwick], so arriving in India at the age of eighteen was like arriving on the moon.’ This sense of boyish wonder has never been lost and he is always seeking to understand, searching the world around him for clues of the extraordinary.

Finally I ask what the most optimistic story he encountered was? ‘It is not a particularly optimistic book,’ he replies, but he does believe there is an underlying hopefulness, despite the tragic tone of many of the stories. It is in many ways a record of  ‘the extraordinary persistence of faith’. At a time when religion is associated with dogma and fanaticism, an understanding of its complexities has never been more urgent. Dalrymple’s writing itself is a cause for optimism.


Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is published by Bloomsbury.