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Nine Lives


From the prize-winning author of White Mughals and City of Djinns, Nine Lives is a distillation of twenty-five years of exploring India and writing about its religious traditions – a modern Indian Canterbury Tales which introduces us to characters and takes us deep into worlds we could never have imagined existed.

A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends years trying to atone for the violence by hand-printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve to death. A woman leaves her middle-class family in Calcutta, and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfilment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden from Kerala becomes, for two months of the year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as an incarnate deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison.

An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 4000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi – or temple prostitute – initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling.

Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. Exquisite and mesmerising, and told with an almost biblical simplicity, William Dalrymple’s first travel book in a decade explores how traditional forms of religious life in South Asia have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change.


Nine Lives Cover
Format: paperback
Publication Date: 7 July 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408801246
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Nine Lives Cover
Format: hardcover
Publication Date: 25 September 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408800614
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Reviews and Quotes

Tom Adair, Scotsman Books of the Year
“The outstanding read of the year…. Entirely absorbing and beautifully lucid, it follows the paths of nine modern pilgrims into the meaning of their quests, evoking the truth of present day India in its spiritual dimension. Dalrymple is cleverly unobtrusive yet enquiring, always absorbed and yet detached. The sub-continent rises, bemusing, bedazzling, a sensory tapestry crafted brilliantly by a writer who touches its texture as only Mark Tully has managed before him.”
Khuswant Singh, Telegraph
“Of this year’s books, I rate William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives very high. Dalrymple writes about India with more knowledge and elegance than does any Indian I know. And this is one aspect of Indian life I was not fully aware of — the bizarre ways adopted by religious cults in their search for divinity. Although strictly factual, his narration grips the reader. It is unputdownable…  Full of information and written in beautifully lyrical prose… Dalrymple never passes judgment, nor questions the rights of these people to the truth as they see it. It is a priceless documentary of different people whose existence I was only vaguely aware of. I feel enriched after reading Nine Lives and strongly recommend it.”
Amabel Baraclough, Pen Pushers
“The need for thoughtful, intelligent observation of other parts of the world has never been greater, and today the travel writer must be trained to observe the nuances of complex societies, to investigate the warp and weft of history, politics and religion. Dalrymple has the breadth of knowledge that allows him to incorporate the often manifold forms of truth he comes across… At a time when religion is associated with dogma and fanaticism, an understanding of its complexities has never been more urgent, and Dalrymple’s writing itself is a cause for optimism… He has become a repository of knowledge of the subcontinent, and Nine Lives is in many ways a culmination of his life as a writer.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay, Tehelka
“Very interesting… Dalrymple writes in a fascinating manner…  There is a feeling of real authenticity about the work.”
Anthony Sattin, The Times, Books of the Year
“Dalrymple’s storytelling skills and eye for the bizarre make this a fascinating and entertaining window onto spiritual India.”
Celia Brayfield, The Times
“The event of the year in travellers’ tales is William Dalrymple’s new book, Nine Lives : In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, an act of dedicated reportage. It captures facets of the extraordinarily rich and complex spiritual life of the sub-continent, using a blend of classic journalistic interviews, exquisitely written contextual passages and slices of oral history in pure Studs Terkel style.”
Nick Smith, Bookdealer
“One of our most important travel writers… there are simply few better than Dalrymple. With Nine Lives he has proven once again that you don’t need to prolific to be of literary importance… Nine people, nine lives, all based on interviews in eight languages and all cracking entertainment. The cast of characters, drawn from different walks of life, with their heart-breaking, life-affirming and often plain weird stories, invites immediate comparison with Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales … the deftness of the brush strokes, rather than the detail, paints a subtly textured and unexpectedly complex piece that has Dalrymple’s fingerprints all over it.  That Nine Lives is unmistakably and so assuredly from the pen of Dalrymple is a tribute to his depth of knowledge of the people and places of India. His main strengths are his instinctive feel for what details matter, how much they weigh and how to articulate them in his understated, but quite lovely prose. While so many of today’s travel writers shift from territory to territory in search of new thrills, Dalrymple goes deeper and deeper into the landscape of India in order to return with clearer images of the people who live there. And in trying to appreciate their lives, we enrich our understanding of our own, and this is why Nine Lives might well be William Dalrymple’s most important book to date.”
Huma Imtiaz, Jang
“Fascinating… celebrated travel writer William Dalrymple's Nine Lives is a fitting reminder of why one has faith, and the wondrous, colourful lives of the faithful. From the shelter of Dharamsala to the courtyard of Sehwan Sharif, Dalrymple brings to life the different places in the subcontinent, which are venerated sites of various religions and more importantly, touches upon the different reasons of what brings people closer to God, their sacrifices to achieve peace, the highest state of spirituality and the difficulties they face in maintaining their unwavering devotion to their God... In writing this book, Dalrymple has not just brought to life the lives of those who sacrifice everything for faith and the threads that bind them together, but has done a great service by preserving these stories for many of us, who may never get the chance to meet the characters or see any of the places that make up Nine Lives.”
Nandhini Parthib, Indian Express
“Dalrymple is a genius… In his first travel book in ten years, Dalrymple gives us a peek into the exotic traditions that have shaped India for centuries, and which continue to struggle and strive for space and survival. He follows some of the country’s oldest and holiest of trails to understand and de-mystify cultures, practices and people.   Nine Lives  is an amazing eye-opening book that journeys along with the people to provide a perspective to their harsh lives. From austere Jain monks to beautiful devdasis, Dalrymple has followed nine very interesting people whose spectacular professions are not about the money but about the essence of their beliefs that binds them to their often difficult jobs and the ties that continue to provide a comfortable cover in the face of the cold reality of their lives… Dalrymple is awesome, as usual,  and what adds such credibility to the book is that he allows his subjects to tell us their stories without attempting to cushion it with his narrative or judgment. Considered his first travel book in ten years Dalrymple gives us a peek into the exotic traditions that have shaped India for centuries, which continue to struggle and strive for space and survival.”
Brian Schofield, The Sunday Times
“Beautifully written, ridiculously erudite and, more than any of his previous work, reveals Dalrymple to be remarkably warm and open-hearted. A towering talent.”
Ruaridh Nicoll, Observer
“William Dalrymple’s study of the people and beliefs of India ranks with the very finest travel writing… Nine Lives is a travel book, but it is also a series of biographies which unpick the rich religious heritage of the subcontinent. It makes its political points more powerfully than any newspaper article, while quietly adjusting a readers attitude to faith. It displays deep knowledge of the culture. At its best travel writing beats fiction, firing the imagination with tales of foreign peoples drawn close by our common humanity. This is travel writing at its very best. I hope it sparks a revival”
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Bron Sibree, Canberra Times
“William Dalrymple’s riveting depiction of subcontinental religion is heavenly reading… It is the singular achievement of Dalrymple, in his strikingly chaste and selfless book, to give us the lives and voices of some regular Indian and Pakistani worshippers without judgment, speculation or high-flown abstraction. As an erudite scholar, Dalrymple gives us a precedent and a context. As a fluent and vivid travel writer, he evokes the landscapes of the land he loves. Behind the uninflected stories of Nine Lives, though, lies an elegiac keening. For as fast as rural people are streaming into India’s exploding cities and logging companies are cutting down sacred groves, the traditions that have sustained the devout for generations are being threatened. Dalrymple brings a powerful restraint and clarity to precisely the two subjects – India and faith – that cause most observers to fly off into cosmic vagueness or spleen. The result is a deeply respectful and sympathetic portrait. "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?" G.K. Chesterton wrote at the beginning of his book Orthodoxy. In Nine Lives, Dalrymple and his subjects give us an answer.”
Pico Iyer, Time Magazine
“The celebrated historian and traveller at his exuberant and erudite best… It is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the stories in Nine Lives. It’s a book that never fails to astonish, to beguile, as it journeys to the outskirts of mainstream religion, keeping company with folk poets, dreadlocked sadhus, minstrels and theyyam dancers. Its not so much a travelogue as a hybrid collection of stories that weave oral history, ethnography, travel writing and the short fiction form into a rich poignant narrative that lingers in the memory long after reading.”
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Partha Chatterjee, Indian Express
“Heart wrenching… Wanderlust has made Dalrymple among the most perceptive and humane of travel writers. He shows a rare ability to connect with spiritually beleaguered people trying their best to find themselves. This book is also his sustained, spirited effort to understand a culture and the different religious faiths within it, at complete variance with his own faith and cultural upbringing. This dedication pays off handsomely in the course of the book. Each of the nine stories is illuminating, speaking of the resilience of the human spirit when fighting against impossible odds. This is a work of non-fiction, no doubt, but Dalrymple’s innate gift as a storyteller makes it glow.”
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Pankaj Mishra, The National
Nine Lives remains oddly gripping, and often very moving, in its first-person accounts, framed by minimal explanations, of spiritually-minded people that Dalrymple meets on his travels across the subcontinent. Across the country, Dalrymple comes across instances of popular religiosity and the stubborn persistence of beliefs and ritual practices amid rapid change. Characters rarely allowed into contemporary Anglophone writing about India are given an opportunity to describe their deepest aspirations without the slightest hint of authorial condescension. They speak eloquently of the varieties and specific content of religious experience in India; its remoteness from the political mobilisation of religion, and its role as a marker of identity… The true vitality and continuity of Indian religions is still to be found where most of India’s one-billion-plus population lives. Still widely practised, folk religions and pluralist traditions constitute the norm rather than the exception… As Dalrymple’s book vividly illustrates, the country’s heterodox religious and philosophical traditions remain stronger than the imported idea of the homogenous nation-state, and have survived much of its immense violence.”
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Peter Kirkwood, The Australian
“For those who enjoyed Dalrymple’s earlier travel adventures, this latest book is written with the same verve and sense of immediacy. But it is perhaps more serious and its insight is more mature. Dalrymple has a great facility for creating a sense of place and bringing these colourful characters to life on the page, and the knack of drawing the universal from the particular. In a deft way he shows how the tensions, dilemmas and changes in the lives of these individuals illustrate the vast transformation of Indian society, so creating an overall work like ‘a modern Indian Canterbury Tales’. As eccentric as Chaucer”s characters, the people who inhabit these pages are a deliciously motley crew. Vibrant and engaging, Dalrymple paints a compelling portrait of this complex sprawling giant of a country at a time of momentous change.”
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Tabish Khair, Biblio
“A fascinating text… It is an index of Dalrymple’s ability as a writer and his complex immersion in Indian cultures that he deftly avoids any hint of ‘Orientalism’… Dalrymple succeeds in juxtaposing the sacred and the secular without diverting the captivating flow of his prose. This is a rich book, teaming with fascinating characters and places worth visiting; it is a travel book that takes the reader not only across the wide expanse of the Indian subcontinent but also into intriguing aspects of India’s past and present. In the process, it also provides much insight into such topical and convoluted matters as Islamist fundamentalism.”
Lewis Jones, Spectator
“Dalrymple’s characteristic wit and sympathy are fully evident in the interviews he has conducted, as are his love and knowledge of the sub-continent ... this fascinating book ... beautifully illustrates the relationship between tradition and modernity in India.”
Sadanand Dhume, Wall Street Journal
“Despite venturing deep inside inherently exotic territory, Mr. Dalrymple pulls off the difficult task of not exoticizing India. In a lesser writer&rsquos; hands, the same material might have read like a retread of old colonial tropes about snake charmers and ascetics. Instead, the reader gets the sense that the author is driven by an unquenchable curiosity about a country he loves. Dalrymple never mocks his subjects. Indeed, his prose is often tinged with tenderness and a sense of longing. In flashes of brilliance, Dalrymple”s work reveals an India still rich in religious experience, its spiritual quest—or rather, quests—still very much part of the warp and weft of daily life. Amid all the excitement about economic growth, an older India endures.”
Nilanjana S Roy, Business Standard
Nine Lives is a fast-paced book, moving swiftly from the perspective of a Jain nun contemplating the slow and voluntary relinquishing of her life to the dilemma of the Dalit theyyam who shuttles between his job as a prison warden to his life as a man in the grip of religious ecstasy. These are compelling contemporary stories, and at times Dalrymple seems to be channelling a modern-day avatar of Kipling, who was so fascinated by India’s multiplicity of faiths…. Embedded in each individual’s stories are disturbing questions about faith and the way it’s practiced in 21st century India.”
Kendall Hill, Sydney Morning Herald
“Dalrymple is the author of many respected books on religion and the subcontinent. From the start his writing has been characterised by rigorous scholarship as the self-effacing but brilliant young Scot stumbles across extraordinary cultures and adventures, and weaves them together into riveting, riotous stories rich in detail and understanding. In Nine Lives the author is on the road again, but deliberately takes a back seat, allowing his characters to tell their own spellbinding. Dalrymple’s exhaustive research and deep feeling for Indian culture and ancient faiths mean he writes with clarity, erudition and engagement. With his guidance and context, each reads story like a rare insight into a multifarious and often impenetrable culture. Nine Lives is India at its most pure but also its most fragile. Dalrymple”s stories always strive for a higher purpose than simply recounting adventures in the manner of so much contemporary travel writing. In Nine Lives, that purpose is to record and conserve these unique, fantastical histories, before they disappear forever.”
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Maya Jasanoff, Maya Jasanoff
“William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives takes the charm and natural verve of City of Djinns, marries it to the intellectual and spiritual engagement of From the Holy Mountain, and brings it off with all the narrative skill developed in his history books, combined with his ever more profound understanding of India.”
James Lamont, Financial Times
“His most ambitious yet, taking the reader into lurid, scarcely imaginable worlds of mysticism, it is also a neat study of the panoply of arcane religious devotion across South Asia. The Nine Lives of the title are touching otherworldly vignettes, carefully chosen. Dalrymple encounters animal sacrifice, epic poetry, trance and a fearsome realm of spirits. He has an inimitable way of conjuring the Indian landscape, and one of his greatest charms is his observation of India’s combination of the sacred and mundane. Behind the devotion and the sense of the epic is always a strong sense of human frailty. Descriptions of exotic transcendental ritual are intertwined with painful personal narratives. An overwhelming sense of fragility surrounds India’s sacred worlds. Dalrymple, as always, impresses with his scholarliness, explaining the religious context of his subjects with erudition.”
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Gaurav Jain, Tehelka
“In clear, simple telling Dalrymple takes us to the beating heart of devotion.”
Rasheeda Bhagat, Hindu Business Line
“Fascinating… Dalrymple’s remarkable book gives us Indians an intriguing package of our own country, seen through the eyes of a westerner who has made an earnest attempt to understand the mystique, asceticism, religious frenzy and philosophy. And, the historian and researcher in him have meticulously etched these vivid portraits, placing their lives in the right perspective. Dalrymple’s characters are vibrant, compelling and with a rare inner strength, and he evokes them in lucid prose. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Dalrymples’s mosaic of these Nine Lives is that his protagonists talk about their faith, spirituality and vocation with a disarming simplicity. His characters talk about their lives without any hyperbole, sense of self-importance or great sacrifice. They are simply good storytellers and the author documents their tales vividly and faithfully.”
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Hirsh Sawhney, Guardian
“A blend of travelogue, ethnography, oral history and reportage, Nine Lives is compelling and poignant… The author tails a remarkably diverse array of characters – the dreadlocked Tantric holy man who listens to cricket on his radio, the religious sculptor whose son will give up the family’s centuries-old trade for a job in computers – who have in common a deep faith in religion that stands against the modern world’s technology, disease, poverty and warfare. The book’s oral histories also paint an uncompromising portrait of globalisation and migration. William Dalrymple thrives on illuminating the points at which seemingly antagonistic cultures intersect.”
Wendy Doniger, Times Literary Supplement
“Any of these stories could make a great film or play, they are so full of passion, tragedy, violence, compassion, and religious fervor, and so vividly evoked … Their human concerns, not unlike ours, melt seamlessly into the bizarre, almost unimaginable circumstances of their ritual life, and eventually we see that that, too, is quite human, that there is nothing weird at all about drinking warm blood or pulling out your hair by the roots. Only a brilliant writer like Dalrymple could bring off this astonishing and unprecedented revelation of the humanity of people on the farthest extremes of religious ecstasy.”
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Raghu Karnad, Time Out
“Nine stories so exquisitely twisted between secular suffering and spiritual commitment, they are capable of changing the way you think about devotion.”
David Robinson, The Scotsman
“There is no other writer whose work explains the East to the West as thoughtfully, stylishly and enjoyably… Few reach this level of empathy able to show at once the fullness of faith and the fragility of the life that led to it.”
Gurcharan Das, Gurcharan Das
“I was enchanted by these poignant and magical stories. By artfully weaving together travel, history, and legend--all without guile--he creates a compelling narrative, reminding us why India is one of the world”s greatest story telling cultures, and why he is one of its greatest story tellers.”
Parvathi Nayar, The Hindu
“Nine Lives is that rare collection of stories that encompasses the mystical, the improbable and the quotidian, a microcosm of India’s dualities and contradictions, the extremities of compassion and violence… Deeply engaging and strangely moving.”
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Peter Parker, The Daily Telegraph
“This absorbing book… Dalrymple is a lively, knowledgeable and sympathetic guide to this world of faith.”
Melissa A. Bell, Mint
“Compelling… Dalrymple is a modern-day Geoffrey Chaucer, writing an Indianized version of The Canterbury Tales. Just as Chaucer depicts 14th century British life through religious pilgrims, Dalrymple distils some of the societal clashes of modern India through the prism of the spiritual awakenings of nine people. As with his other books, Dalrymple has a sensitive eye for his subjects and he travels to corners of India often left unnoticed. But unlike his earlier writings, here he stays largely outside the book. The voices in the book are not Dalrymple’s, but the nun’s, the Baul’s, or the monk’s. It is a compelling, respectful technique, empowering the subjects by making them their own narrators. By giving the well-digger, the prostitute and the Muslim refugee a voice, Dalrymple dignifies them and their spiritual quests.”
Shevlin Sebastian, New Indian Express
“A remarkable book.”
John Keay, The Literary Review
“Impressively honest …The reader relishes the sense of immediacy and conviction. Dalrymple reconstructs the testimony of his interviewees brilliantly, without apparent contrivance or condescension.”
Jason Webster, Sunday Telegraph
“The contrast between the ethereal and the worldly, the old and the new, is at the heart of William Dalrymple’s latest travel book. The profiles he presents form a kaleidoscopic vision of the religious life of India – a scattered effect which ultimately is successful in creating a coherent whole. With each one Dalrymple gently pushes them to reveal secrets of their faith and practices, and tales of how they arrived at their present position. Some, like a maker of Hindu idols in Tamil Nadu, are following a family tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Others, like the ’Red Fairy’ – a holy woman dressed in red at a Sufi shrine in Sindh, recount stories of great hardship, forced to leave their homes and families and travel long distances across the subcontinent in search of refuge. His intention in the book, he says, is to ”keep the narrator firmly in the shadows’, allowing the characters to present themselves. This is a brave decision, and that it doesn’t then become a work of simple reportage is testament to Dalrymple’s skill as a writer.”
Kumar Chellapan, Deccan Herald
“Memorable: it is doubtful if anyone has succeeded in showcasing the Indian hinterland as Dalrymple has.”
Salil Tripathi, The Independent
“In India, Dalrymple seems to have found a home, and India has reciprocated. Dalrymple’s nine characters live on the margins of a society transforming at a bewildering pace. These individuals are gripped by a divine madness they cannot explain. In some cases it induces trance; some express it through dance or song; and with some, that mystical current helps them create sculptures or paintings of exceptional beauty. They are on a spiritual quest, making incredible sacrifices, obliterating identities, in search of a salvation which may remain elusive, and Dalrymple listens with a rare empathy. Throughout his writing life, Dalrymple has valued Sufi syncreticism and Baul brotherhood, and is affectionate towards those who have undergone mystical experiences. Dalrymple the historian knows the forces that make religions and ethnicities fight; Dalrymple the journalist has described that violence; but Dalrymple the travel writer lets these nine people speak. The journey of intermingled faiths and lives remains surprising and delightful.”
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Mani Shankar Aiyer, Outlook
“A travel writer of huge talent, even genius.”
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