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on 19 January 2010
The publisher does this book no favours by describing it as a "modern Indian Canterbury tales" it is far more than that, it is a well-researched look at how religious devotion survives in a changing country. Several of the nine individuals of this book, have given up possessions, family, and desires in search of spirituality, others such as the idol-maker or the folk minstrels of Rajasthan continue centuries old traditions. For them, God resides in their craft, their story telling, their songs (Bauls), or their paintings (Bhopas). As a tantric devotee says in the book: "you get here what you cannot find anywhere else: pure human beings."

Dalrymple already has a well-deserved reputation as a historian and travel writer, and some see this book as being in the travel-writing genre. I think it tries to go further and examine the human condition. Dalrymple allows each of the nine to tell their own story and provides some background research on the different groups. That is interesting as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Dalrymple's is too detached as an observer, and in too much of a hurry as he criss-crosses the country to really understand the context of his subjects' lives.

In the 1930s the philosopher-traveller Dr Paul Brunton wrote "A Search In Secret India", recounting his travels seeking out renowned mystics, fakirs and other holy men, to understand what makes them and their followers tick. That vivid and compelling book is still in print, and for good reason. Brunton is more adept and analytical, able to better convey the spirituality of his subjects. Dalrymple's "Nine Lives" has much the same aims, but each chapter remains just a snapshot that falls well short of Brunton's masterpiece in drawing us into his subjects' state of mind.
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on 4 January 2010
William Dalrymple takes on the biggest subject of all: the human search for the divine. Elegant, sad, wise and moving it is the best and most nuanced book on South Asian spirituality to appear for many years: no wonder it has been top of the bestseller list here in India for weeks. Only someone who has spent many years in the subcontinent would have the depth of knowledge that this book displays and in many ways it is the culmination of Dalrymple's writing career. Even for those of us who grew in this country will find much that is strange and new. A wonderful achievement.
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on 9 November 2009
What a beautiful book....
Dalrymple has outshone himself from simply being a brilliant historian to the most compassionate, empathetic and erudite story-teller of modern India. Each of the stories in this poignantly sensitive book have been dealt with such love, humility and understanding towards the protagonist in the story, that the writer almost disappears as a non judgmental narrative voice in the background. Its almost like seeing the story visually with Dalrymple's kind voice in the background. Kind because, he treats his characters with such respect and kindness. Even though, there is an air of melancholy permeating through the pages; the reader carries after completing each story - a feeling of depth, satisfaction and sense of gratitude to have just read about an almost mythical hero living amongst us. Dalrymple has shown us in this book, his fine art of seeing the 'profound in the profane' once again.
For a sensitive reader like me, this is a rare piece of art.
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on 29 September 2009
Elegant and occasionally elegiac William Dalrymple has written a beautiful and insightful book on the hidden India, a country at once capitalist and modern but also still spiritual and unique. The people who Dalrymple interview are representative of a traditional and devout way of life - but yet their individualism shines through. I was touched, amused and sometimes bewildered by their stories and religious devotion. Nine Lives is Dalrymple's best book since From The Holy Mountain.
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on 17 December 2012
As Indians we often take pride in the diversity in our society and justifiably so. Why the hell not I say! But after reading this book you will have much more to be proud of and unfortunately also to be sad about. Proud because you realise how much more diverse the Indian society is, and sad because we will never be able to grasp the magnitude of the diversity in our lifetime and that it will be lost to time sooner rather than later. And to think that India is a fraction of the whole world, it is very sobering thought!

To my mind, what WD manages so successfully in this book is to be a transparent medium between his interviewees and his audiences without falling pray to the temptation of interpreting/judging his interviewees' actions or their way of life. And you are always kept glued to their lives and their stories by way of wonderful writing. I can easily imagine 100 ways how this exercise could have turned out to be journalistic or preachy. I was struck by WD's ability to be nonjudgmental and honesty. Superb effort.

Highly recommended for anyone and everyone.
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on 29 March 2010
I have bought several of Dalrymple's books in the past. Although he is not Indian, he writes about India with passion and knowledge and I generally enjoy his writing. This book was no exception. It covers a wide range of religious traditions, some well known and some not, and examines how these traditions are surviving in modern India. Each chapter focuses on a different tradition and a small group of people or even one person without that tradition and their lives/ life. I really do envy Dalrymple for getting to travel around India so much and meet so many facinating people!

If you are interested in India's culture, or in religion, then I am sure you will find this book to be a very good read.
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on 6 November 2009
William Dalrymple is one of my favourite authors.This is his latest book. It is a travel book . There are 9 chapters on his conversations and interactions with 9 persons touching on their respective religious traditions of India. The first chapter is on Mataji, a Jain. The third chapter is on Rani Bai, a devadasi -these are girls given to Hindu temples to serve the Gods but now plying their trade as prostitutes.

Dalrymple said that the idea for this book was born 16 years ago in 1993 when he was corkscrewing up a Himalayan trail. He does not identify when his interviews took place. It is therefore difficult to envisage when and how India's traditional forms of religious life have been transformed in the vortex of the region's rapid change.If you are looking for a history book on India's religious traditions this is not for you. But if your interest is in the travel genre do read this book.
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on 15 January 2011
I borrowed this from not having read any of Dalrymple's travel books before, and I really enjoyed it. Dalrymple does what he says he set out to do in this book: he removes himself from the stories. The focus is entirely on the people he meets and on their lives. This is in contrast to a lot of travel writing (including his own earlier books); where, as Dalrymple says, everything is centered on the ever-observing writer himself. That's not to say though that this kind of book isn't good or valuable, for example Jonny Bealby writes very personally about his journeys and how they affect him as an individual, and I loved his books for that very reason. It is though, a fine balance, and one that Bealby masters as he doesn't focus on himself too much, which would reduce the importance of the people he meets. For me, Bealby's own motivations and feelings add a richness to his accounts. We also get to see him through the eyes of those he meets; wonderfully human and engaging interactions that make for great reading. Dalrymple, I feel, lost this very important and interesting aspect of travel; how are we peceived by those we visit? William Dalrymple removes himself, not from the narrative entirely, but from the centre of it all, and all we get are his (to his credit) fair and beautifully described representations of the people. We are rarely told what he actually thinks and feels about the things he sees and hears, although you do get a good idea of where his sympathies and passions lie. This approach, though very logical and pure, somehow left me with a detached and clinical feeling. I don't feel it would have been to the book's detriment if Dalrymple had let more of himself seep into it, quite the contrary in fact. I wondered what these amazing people made of him! Though as he says his admirable intention was "to keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage." This, as opposed to what he feels standard travel writing does: reduce the poeple met to mere background objects. I understand the reasons but his arguably extreme approach makes the book a more cold and anthropological read than it could've been if he'd sensitively shared himself with us as well. Ironically, it made me more eager than I might've been to read his earlier books where he does this more. All in all though, the stories were fascinating and well-told. I learnt a lot about the sub-continent of India and the varied forms of traditional devotion still practised despite the unstoppable modernisation of a nation.
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on 14 September 2010
Fascinating book, making plain the relationship between poverty,isolation, desperation and the esoteric. Its too simple to talk of superstition and the powerless, these many stories indicate the net of tradition that supports the neediest. Touching and gripping as well as informative. Loved it and will probably make it my Christmas present book -
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on 2 October 2010
There cannot be any better writer about places, people and their history than Dalrymple.After a decade of producing history he is back in his travels again and we should all be grateful.

He says in the introduction that he has tried hard to remove himself from the stories, that he wanted to properly highlight the voices of those he was featuring. And so we have a book a short stories, concise, perfectly rounded and superbly judged.

The focus here is on those who are part of the amazing range of India's religious and mystical life. I wont't go on -- you should read them for yourself.

The are lovingly written stories about fascinating people, often who live their lives in extraordinary circumstances.

I hope its not another decade before we see the next fruits of Dalrynmple's travels.
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