-santosh kumar


The first expression generated from our reading of the book by William darlymple titled “nine lives” is that of awe or surprise. This feeling actually tells us that the version of the narrative that we are getting from the book is that of an “outsider”. The book under purview doesn’t seem to be exactly catering to an intellectual audience nor is it part of any academic exercise. Rather, the author William darlymple has given a narrative to the cases he presents. He himself in the introduction mention it as a “non- fiction short story” or a “travelogue” rather than a work of history. Though, the text in most part seems to be biographies of the individuals interviewed by darlymple, the author has successfully placed the oral interviews in a historical context which makes it a compelling source of  studying oral history though the author does not himself claim any such thing. This book is then the collection of accounts of nine different people in India with entirely different backgrounds though with a common theme- religion and/or spirituality. Though the stories are not linked to each other and could be seen as separate entities and are complete in themselves, we do find certain common themes that underline the narrative. So it seems better to study the text dividing it on the basis of the themes it offers rather than discussing it chapter wise. This will help in bringing out the points that the text either projects or brings out unintentionally. Though we need to corroborate the ideas presented by the text, to avoid the gravest mistake in reading a text, particularly based on an oral source- that is, to take the account at face value. Here, we will discuss the religious, social, culture histories through the eyes of an author who we assume is stranger to the surroundings he describes. This adds the element of perception to the text.  Here, we must emphasize that certain generalizations may creep in our analysis which acts like a subjective observations of the text which not always a proof for its validation given the narrative form of the text. These observations most of the times comes from our attempts to read between the lines and thus may be sometimes our misreading the text. Thus the present analysis should be read as critically as we read the work of William darlymple lest some of our observations come across the readers as our own biases.


  1. Western perception of India-


There are certain things that we need to keep in mind while reading the text. Firstly, we need to take this fact into consideration that our author William darlymple is not a native of India. No matter how closely he works in India, the point of view projected in the text remains an outsider’s view in the context of Indian religious traditions (even an indigenous scholar would have been an outsider to the vast number of heterogeneous cultures that are explored in the text and the element of perception will never cease to exist no matter who the writer is, given the huge geographical and cultural space the text covers. But by an outsider’s view here we are concerned about an exotic view of Indian culture which in words of timothy Mitchell sees the oriental world as “exhibits”. It is a layperson view and no longer valid that oral sources are abstract formless ideas and interviewer plays a passive role in the compilation of oral history. In oral sources as well it is the interviewer who asks certain type of questions, chooses and omits the given material and presents the interview in a particular presentable style. A good example of this is Urvashi Butalia’s work on partition, “the other side of silence”, where she  herself admits that from the plethora of evidence and cases available and a huge chunk of recorded evidence on disposal she included in her book only those portions which she find interesting. So, the perception of the author is fairly important as in this context, the author, we assume, though not a completely novice about Indian culture, may not be aware of the heterogeneous religious traditions across India considering the extent to which his text is spread. There are certain trends recorded in the text which are not always easy to classify as the ambiguous category of “Hinduism” and such classifications tends to be quite loose. Here, lie the perceptions of the author in specific and European perceptions in general regarding India and Indian religion. Though the author avoids judging the stories he has been told (barring a few exceptions) his observations at certain points do reflect his western bias and which is actually more important aspect to look at. Most of the times, this bias get reflected in his use of language and the terminology he adopts in the text. After critically reading the text, we observe that before meeting the person and the place of his interview, he assumes that the society he is visiting is a “pre-modern society” in his own words. And thus in many points in the text he get surprised by the development of certain places. This is perhaps the most common western perception of the west about the Orientals that there is a changeless, static, monolithic society and often developments fill them with surprise. In the introduction of the text he compares the rural hinterland with developing urban city of Gurgaon and sees the former as “pre-modern”, “backward”. Such observations, though not negatively contextualized, nevertheless help in understanding the psyche of the author. At the point of discussion of the tantric practices in Bengal, he quotes the point of view of laypeople who consider the practice as “savage”. Even though the author is not condoning this view, he is presenting it in a matter of fact way and has not used “inverted commas” to suggest that there is any difference between the author’s point of view and general perception about tantricism.


Conversely we also locate, in certain places, how the author is perceived by the local people in India. Since the author was foreigner and alien to the culture there must be feeling exited, suspicious, hesitant etc but none of such expressions is recorded in the text. The interviews are recorded plainly in most cases with a sense of indifference to the identity of the author (except in case of the Jain monk). A very interesting observation here is that barring the cases where the person interviewed is a female (and in no case is she a household women) in all other cases where the person is interviewed even within a family, we don’t get to know the perception of the women of the household, even though she also played a part in the ritual and traditions. Like in the case of bard Mohan Bhopa, where his wife accompanied him for singing the folklore doesn’t feature at all in the interview except serving food! This we can see as an example of hierarchy, even within the household tales or folk stories, which pass on to from generation to generation. The public visibility of these women folklorists seems to get reduced if the audience or the listener is not one of their kinsmen. The perception about the foreign interviewer also depends upon the background of the interviewee. Like while in the case of devdasis, the author mentions that he was misunderstood by the local people as one of her “clients”. Conversely, while interviewing the Jain monk Prasenmati mataji, the author was not allowed to enter her dining room as “he was not bathed and he may have eaten meat”.  Thus the western perception about India and vice versa alters with the change in context and on the nature of people and locality.



  1. Decoding the language-


Language becomes very important in the context of perception. As we said earlier the author creates this illusion that there were very normal circumstances under which the interview was conducted but he omits the problem of language from his text. William darlymple during his course of study, traveled from one extreme to the other in Indian subcontinent even travelling across border of India to sahiwan in Pakistan. Though, throughout the text, he creates this illusion that he had a one to one interaction with the people he interviewed. But given the extent of his travelling and the linguistic heterogeneity of the region it doesn’t seem possible until one is multilingual (in so many language) or you have an interpreter/translator/mediator working for you.  The translator is the one who will understand your question in your language, communicate it to the interviewee in their language, take input in their language, and reconvert it into the language of the interviewer.  But this poses two problems- firstly; we don’t get to see the role of the interpreter in the text. This reminds us of E.H.Carr who points out how historians choose to omit and select his fact but the process of selection starts at the level of archive only. The author may want us to believe that there was no role played by the interviewee and the interpreter except providing the knowledge but actually it is they who  choose what to tell and what to not. Interpreter has this arduous task of making sense of this information (as Philip Wagoner points out in the context of colonial archive that the native intermediaries are not just passive informants but active collaborationist) and translating the knowledge in the language of the interviewer. But this poses a problem. Certain terms and certain concepts are cultural specific which may not have an exact translation in other language. Thus what the interpreter translates is the closest meaning available in the vocabulary. This in itself considerably alters the meaning of the text. This also creates confusion related to certain concepts which a foreign scholar finds difficult to comprehend. For example, when Prasenmati mataji talked about the relevance of salenkhana in Jainism, darlymple tried to reason out with her, and objected it as a “form of suicide”. That’s perhaps due to a lack of western counterpart to such concepts or inability of the language to translate all the nuances attached with the term. Thus a small but important difference may arise between the “perceived meaning” and the “actual meaning”.


  1. Knowing the unknown through the known-


Another aspect of being an outsider, especially a foreigner is choosing your target audience. William darlymple, apart from the Indian audience, also seems to write for the western readers of his books. Many of the westerners may have a very scanty knowledge of the in depth study of Indian religions that William darlymple provides in the book. Thus this becomes for the author to explain these traditions to these audience while maintaining the narrative form of the text. And here we come to our next problem. For a long time, westerners worked on this truism-“knowing the unknown through the known”, that is, through citing similarities between cultures. For knowing about an unknown culture this needs to be known with a culture which is already known.  A prime of this we find in this text. In the case of the Jain monk, the author constantly compares Jainism with Buddhism and even introduces Jainism as “this is a religion similar to Buddhism”. This is perhaps because while Buddhism is a world known religion Jainism is hardly known beyond India much less in Europe. Thus to make people understand a relatively unknown culture he compares it with Buddhism citing similarities between their main tenets like non violence, austerity, heterodox sects etc. so the information an author derives from the text is a comparative and approximate meaning of Jainism with Buddhism as a reference point. This is perhaps a short coming of oral sources that many a times they tends to be culture specific which is hard to understand without assistance. Though a.k. Ramanujan has shown through his works that folk tales travel thus we can understand much of the cross cultural stories easily. But it becomes more difficult to understand a whole culture or religion orally or in this case writing transmitted from oral interviews.


  1. Oral and written- corroborations and alternative history


While reading the text we need to keep in mind that the basic premise of this text is based on interviews which are oral sources. There are problems related to study of sources like these. For example the question of authorship which actually is ascribed to the interviewer rather than the interviewee although it is the later who provides the inputs for the text. Other question is related to the reliability of the text.  Ron Grele had questioned the interviews as historical text or interpretative history owing to the problems of reliability of individual testimony,  comparison between oral and written sources according to him is inevitable. Though this strict demarcation between oral and written has been now refuted, in this case, when the author is a foreigner, it becomes all the more difficult for him to verify the statements of the interviewee. Conversely, an additional problem arises when the author tries to fill the gap in the narrative through his own perception and imagination. According to Natalie Zemon Davis, most records belonging to small town or countryside characterize their inhabitants as naive, simple, domestic etc. this characterization does not remain restricted to the literature but also the administrative and legal documentation as well. Thus it is more likely for an oral history writer to use this characterization for convenience. Thus, not only the perception of the author but the state records as corroborative source gets misled by this generalization. Thus, neither the oral nor the written material should be taken for face value and like written state records oral sources should also be treated as an archival source and should be read critically.


Another point within this subtopic is the nature of oral sources. Apart from what the interviewee directly tells to the author, what he doesn’t tell or doesn’t choose to tell is also a source of knowledge for which the interviewer needs to “read between the lines”. Here, the background of the interviewee becomes very important. There are contrasts in ideas with change in background. For example two people associated with folklore, Mohan Bhopa and Komal Kothari can be used as an example. Mohan Bhopa was a little educated folksinger of the epic of the local deity pabuji maharaj trying to keep the tradition alive by performing regularly, whereas Komal Kothari is an educated folklorist who is credited for reviving the dying art of folklore. Now, while Mohan Bhopa’s intention is to keep the tradition alive of folklore in his area and his community which is being diminishing either due to ignorance or due to its commercialization. Ironically, Komal Kothari is the one who is trying to revive the art by bringing out CD’s of the oral epics which is hampering the business of performing artists like Mohan Bhopa as Mohan Bhopa tells darlymple that people are preferring 3 hours CD’s than 7 days performance. Though William darlymple mentions Komal Kothari in his text, he couldn’t think of the contrast that exists between the two people of similar interests but with diametrically opposite stands. In most stories of the text, interviewee talks about their beliefs and often justifies their superstitions. While the author doesn’t make any judgment on such beliefs, we can unconsciously study the characters of the people interviewed and the people associated with the traditions they represent.


  1. Reading history through the myths- the great and the little traditions

As said earlier, apart from the direct information extracted from the interviews, other sources of knowledge are also useful. This includes folklore, myths, legends etc. we don’t need to just study these myths as depiction of their own societal structures but we can read their motives behind constructing such myths. Intentionally or unintentionally we don’t know, but none of the cases in the book belongs to the orthodox religious system. Even discussing the very broad traditions of Hinduism, the cases presented are not the brahmanical traditions. The cases include that of a low caste theyyam dancer, a bardic poet, a tantric women, devdasis etc. Not only does these myths project an alternative mythology which is quite different from the brahmanical versions, they are also many a times, (though not always) challenge the brahmanical notions. In one story of a Sufi saint the narrative presents a view which stands opposite to orthodox Islam. Thus, the narrative projects an “unorthodox”, “heterogeneous” form of religion. Thus these myths also vary with change in society, status of myth makers and the reason for creation of myth. For example in the case of theyyam dancers, the story goes like this- in order to teach lesson to Adi Shankracharya for discriminating against the untouchables, lord Shiva came in disguise of a low caste man and taught him a lesson on humility. Myths of these type adopted by the marginal sections of the society acted as a mark of protest against the casteist brahmanical elites who kept them at bay. Often such myths originate from the lower strata of the society and thus here background becomes even more important. But as pointed out by a.k Ramanujan the great traditions and little traditions are not always antagonist to each other. We find ample examples where brahmanical stories and deities get incorporated into folklore and conversely many local deities were incorporated into the mainstream traditions as demigods and sometimes even god. The oral tradition of Ramayana is an excellent example of this where different tribal regions try to legitimize themselves through association with the characters of these epic.  For example, to legitimize and deify a 14th century cattle warrior to status of a deity, myth was created assimilating that warrior turned deity pabuji maharaj with Ravana. According to this story, pabuji maharaj defeated Ravana and bring camels from lanka to rajasthan. This is not just an attempt to seek legitimization for the deity but rather taking their eponymous roots to the timeless past and defeating Ravana helps in elevating the status of the society from cattle rearing communities to a more mainstream social status. In some other cases, myths acted as a didactic statement to emphasize the importance of certain modern institutions. For example, in a tribal version of Ramayana, Rama is shown as a school going child. Here myths work to encourage modern education among the tribal people. Similarly the story of kach and Shukracharya could be read as a statement to discourage alcoholism among Brahmins. Thus myths that are stated in the book as anecdotes of the traditions associated with the interviewee could be read as a statement of legitimization, identity and protest. As according to a.k. Ramanujan, these myths despite being located in the distant past are aware of their contemporary times. For example, like in the case of theyyam dancers, they point out that lord Shiva married a girl of their village, and there folklore was centered on their celebration of their marriage. Especially important is their assertion that the marriage took place in the fields of the village and therefore they celebrate their festivals around their fields only. We can sense some sort of agricultural rites as the basis of the celebration around which the myth have been created. These myths also sometimes reflect the ongoing tussle in the contemporary society which gets reflected in the retelling of certain myths in a different way. For example in a local retelling of Ramayana, the battle is not fought between Rama and Ravana but rather between sons of Rama and Lakshman. According to this story, Lakshman accidentally ate beef and became Muslim. Thus he had two sons’ Hassan and Husain who were killed by Luv and Kush. We can sense communal tendencies in this story whose roots can be seeped in modern times. So myths make more sense if studied in the socio-cultural setup which gives rise to such myths.


  1. Religion and the role of state-

While reading darlymple’s “nine lives”, in most of the interviews, we can see the invisible hand of state in the space of religion and spirituality as well, which in most cases, is considered a private space. We can read from the text, the instances, where state intervenes in the religious sphere of life. Firstly; in the case of Mohan Bhopa and the declining bardic traditions and oral epics in India, we can sense a role of the state indirectly in this decline. After 1857, we see attempts of the state to extract stratified, crystallized form of knowledge about the colonies which could be used to further enhance their rule. Thus they moved away from the “messy” knowledge of myths, legends etc like that of McKenzie’s archive to more systematic written brahmanical codes and texts. Even the Brahmins or Islamic ulemas etc associated with the colonial government seems to brutally ignore the rich oral tradition in India. Perhaps because, one; they were difficult to classify within a watertight category and secondly, it was difficult to corroborate the chunk of unorganized and unwritten sources with the brahmanical texts. Also perhaps the exclusive monopoly of written texts over oral sources allowed the dominance of the Brahmins and the ulemas to give impetus to the codified knowledge over which they have complete mastery and which helped them acquiring a share in the power. Of late there were attempts to write down these oral epics for their conservation but many more such epics died out or are still dying due to lack of patronage on the part of government. William darlymple tells us how some oral epics which for centuries were sung in the shrines and hospices, slowly died out due to lack of patronage and alleged competition with the written sources. Due to lack of economic viability of these traditions, even the younger generation is hesitant to inherit the oral traditions from their ancestor. Like, Mohan Bhopa’s son took another profession rather than joining his father’s occupation. While for people like Komal Kothari the question is more about the dying art which needs to be conserved, for Mohan Bhopa the question was also about his livelihood and social status which is exemplified due to the respect of the occupation he is doing. Thus not only patronage/support the motive of patronage/support (economic or academic) becomes equally important.


Another aspect of the role of state is the question of morality. The perception of state towards religion is not always neutral. Like in the book, one of the cases is about the tantric practices in Bengal which till late 19th century was organized in open spaces in temples, but after 1880’s, this practice was banned by the colonial government on the charges of indecency (for the sexual yogic practices associated with tantricism). But this could also be seen as the policy of appeasement of dominant social classes by the state, as the authorities who complained against these practices, were by and large the orthodox brahmanical classes. Similarly, devdasis tradition or the temple girls, who were earlier given patronage by the big temples, later on refused to acknowledge any such practices in their premises when the government decided to ban it on charges on women exploitation and prostitution. In the text, we find two opposite accounts, one of the devdasis who consider still, the temples as their agency, and the temple priests, who refused to tell the author about any information on devdasis refuting such charges completely. Thus, the reading of the text how state intervention changes the relation between people or agencies associated with a particular tradition.

Third example of intervention of state comes from the story of the Buddhist monk. Here, the peaceful and religious life of the Buddhist monks of Tibet is disturbed by the Chinese invasion which forced them not just to flee to India but also against their religious practices- to take up arms. This tells us how state and authority changes the relation of the person with his own religious tradition. Interestingly, this person joins the Indian army, serves for 30 years, retires and then as an act of repentance of his son, becomes a Buddhist monk again!

Thus, the idea that state and religion are two parallel agencies is not completely true as both gets influenced by each other and influence each other in different ways.


  1. Dialectics within a religion-


The common layman perspective on religion devoid it of any dynamics and often religion is expressed in a one dimensional, monolithic, changeless form. William darlymple’s work not only helps us understand the heterogeneity within a religion, it tells about the dialectical relation that may exist within a religious tradition. Sometimes we come across two entirely different traditions within the same faith that are not only opposite but sometimes also hostile to each other. For example, the case of the Sufi saint in sahiwan is a classic example of this. Here, on a rare occasion, the author incorporates the view of the interviewee, who is a female Sufi saint, but also the representative of the Wahhabi institution nearby, both of being highly critical of each other’s views. While the Sufi saint believe in the union of souls, ecstasy, music and dance as an expression of love and devotion to god. They feel that orthodoxy is ruining the spirit of Islam. On the other hand, Wahhabi representative points out that these Sufi saints are mostly illiterate and don’t have any knowledge of scriptures and are misleading people. According to him, people are more inclined towards the abstract ideas of the Sufism and that’s why they are not sending their children in enough numbers to their institution. This conflict we find is not just limited to just ideas but it has taken quite violent turn as well. For example, the Sufi tombs were few years ago, bombed by the Wahhabi. Thus, the study of the text enables us to understand not only the different ideologies that co-exist within a religion but also the historical background of these conflicts and finally the propaganda and justifications of each of these traditions to prove themselves as the actual representative of that religion (and how religion is manipulated to suit their ideologies). But not always the conflicting ideas became hostile; sometimes there is a mutual recognition of the dissenting perspectives. Like for example the case of theyyam dancers, whose dance dramas mock and criticize the brahmanical classes as oppressors. In most of the cases, the brahmanical class not only tolerates but is a faithful audience of these dances. The case of the theyyam dancer in the text tells us, how in some cases these upper class people venerate those theyyam deities. This actually is an example of how different socio cultural backgrounds lead to different responses to the dialectics.


Finally, what we can make out from our discussion is that, the text though written by a foreign author whose perceptions are unintentionally sometimes comes in between the narrative, though overall this is a fairly engaging narrative which helps us in studying the dynamics of the religious sphere in India. Here, we study religion, not as a set of dogmas or a belief system but rather as a socio cultural institution. We can sense the politics of religion and how they affect and get affected by each other. Though this text has its own set of shortcomings which can’t be neglected and which cautions us to not take the perspective of the narrative uncritically. William darlymple does the same mistake which was done by Urvashi Butalia in “the other side of silence”. That is, being sympathetic with a particular version of story. That’s why it is urged to read the oral testimonies as archival source by decoding the language and perspective from the text and see it critically. Like, in the case of the Sufi saint of Sahiwan, though the author incorporates two different perspectives- one of Sufi saint and other of Wahhabi representative, we can see his inclination and sympathy towards the version of the Sufi saint.  Similarly, in the case of the Buddhist monk, we don’t get the corroborative perspective from the Chinese officials and in most cases we see the stories from a one dimensional perspective. As a historian, we should read the cases critically and should be able to read what lies beneath and beyond these stories. Then we can use this text for constructing the historical narrative of religious life in a more accurate way.




  1. William darlymple- “nine lives- in search of sacred in modern India”
  2. Natalie Zemon Davis- “the return of martin guerre”
  3. D.N. Jha (ed.)- “symbols and stereotypes: essays on Indian history and culture”
  4. Rustam bharucha- “Rajasthan an oral history- conversations with Komal Kothari”
  5. Urvashi Butalia-“the other side of silence”
  6. Robert perks and Alistair Thomson (ed.)- “oral history reader”
  7. A.k. Ramanujan- “the collected essay of a.k. Ramanujan”
  8. Devdutt patnaik- “myth=mithya”
  9. Phillip Wagoner- “pre-colonial intellectual and the production of colonial knowledge”
  10. E.H.Carr- “what is history”