Bloomsbury £20 (260pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nine Lives, By William Dalrymple

"'Before you drink from a skull,' said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, 'you must first find the right corpse'." So begins one of the stories William Dalrymple tells us from his journeys in search of the sacred in a rapidly modernising India. Over the years, Dalrymple has explored many parts of the east. In Xanadu took us from Jerusalem to Mongolia. From the Holy Mountain was about the Eastern Orthodox Church, and City of Djinns made Delhi the centrepiece of a fascinating saga. In India, Dalrymple seems to have found a home, and India has reciprocated. In 2007, he won a leading Indian award for non-fiction, for his history The Last Mughal.

The Indians Dalrymple encounters in Nine Lives are at the edge of the society, but as Nirad Chaudhuri observed, in India even exceptions run into millions. 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.

While the nine lives are not identical, in several instances they have undergone a revelation which can't be proven scientifically and invites ridicule from rationalists. But those experiences have calmed their lives, and Dalrymple listens with a rare empathy. There is the Jain nun giving up food, deciding to starve herself to death, unable to bear the death of a nun became a close friend. Her atonement may be because her faith frowns upon any attachment.

There is a dalit well-digger who is also a jail warder, treated like a sub-human by the same upper-caste Brahmins who will touch his feet when, for two months every year, he dances as a God, performing Theyyam. A Buddhist monk who has renounced his vows to defend his faith against the Chinese in Tibet instead ends up fighting Pakistanis in the Bangladesh war, and expresses repentance by making exquisite prayer flags. Thrice driven to seek refuge, a Bihari Muslim finds solace as the red fairy with a wooden club at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan.

These are exceptional people: Dalrymple calls them crazy, not as in insane, but other-worldly. He is not judgmental. He doesn't praise their spirituality to mock contemporary India's US-style pursuit of happiness nor does he criticise them for avoiding filial obligations, as indeed some have.

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. He is an unobtrusive cameraman, intruding only gently to provide context and succinct summaries of the issues: the petty cruelties of caste; the challenge to inclusive Sufis from the self-righteous Taliban in Pakistan; and the ostracising of tantriks, whose blessings politicians and moneyed traders nonetheless seek.

Religion is often collective, but Dalrymple's characters are looking for individual release. Adherents of the mainstream would hasten to distance themselves from some practices. Wealthy traders host Jain nuns but live ostentatious lifestyles. Hindu nationalists don't share the fraternal feelings Bauls have for others, and would destroy sexually explicit art of the kind seen in temples if found in a contemporary setting.

Such tumult excited VS Naipaul when he travelled across India for A Million Mutinies Now in 1990. Two years later, Hindu nationalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Sufi shrines brought faiths together in Pakistan; now they are under threat from Muslim fundamentalists. The mavericks face a threat from emerging orthodoxies within their faiths. But these lost souls are happy to accommodate: while Manisha Ma Bhairavi explains the right skull to drink blood from, her companion, is ear glued to the radio, shouts: "India are 94 without loss," celebrating another of the subcontinent's religions: cricket. The journey of intermingled faiths and lives remains surprising and delightful.

Salil Tripathi is the author of 'Offence: the Hindu case' (Seagull)

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