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Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
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Sep 01, 2011

really liked it

This book consists of interviews with eight Indians and one India-born Pakistani about their religious lives. A Jain nun's only friend and companion caught tuberculosis, and slowly starved herself to death, which is the highest sacrifice in her religion. The nun has started on the same path, although only 38 and healthy; the sacred books leave open the possibility that she will be reunited with her companion in the next world. A Dalit man from Kerala works as a well digger and a prison guard for nine months of the year; for three months, he works as an incarnation of a god, dancing and singing at religious ceremonies while possessed by the god. The high-caste people who wouldn't let him drink from the wells he dug now grovel at his feet. A woman from Karnataka was sold by her mother into sacred prostitution; she insists that there is a world of difference between her and the secular whores, but apparently there is almost none; the johns definitely do not feel anything sacred when they have their way with her. Although angry at her mother, she did the same with her daughters, who died of AIDS aged 15 and 17. A Tibetan man became a monk in his early teens; when China invaded Tibet, and Chinese soldiers came to his monastery and said that they had come to liberate them, the abbot replied that the Lord Buddha showed that each man must liberate himself. The monk renounced his vows, and tried to fight the Chinese, who had tanks and planes, with an old rifle, and then fled into exile in India. He enlisted in the Indian Army, but was sent not to bring dharma back to Tibet, but to fight Pakistanis in what is now Bangladesh. Leaving the army as soon as he legally could, he took his vows again, and tried to regain the karma he lost when shedding the blood of the Pakistani soldiers by making prayer flags. There is also a chapter on a priest-singer of a Rajasthani folk epic; one on a devotee of a Sufi saint in Sindh, exiled first from India as a Muslim, and then from East Pakistan as a non-Bengali; one on a caster of bronze statues of gods in Tamil Nadu whose family has been in the business for 700 years, but whose son wants to be a computer engineer instead; one on a Tantric priestess in West Bengal who prefers to use the skulls of suicides, preferably ones who hanged or poisoned themselves, in her ceremonies; and one on the priestess's friend, a blind singer of atheistic mystic hymns.
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