Nine Lives, By William Dalrymple

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The Independent Culture

Setting out his ambition for this, his compendium of spirituality in the subcontinent, William Dalrymple says he hopes to avoid the clichés of "Mystic India" that blight so much Western writing on Indian religions.

Given the subject matter - nine testimonies from spiritual figures ranging from a Jain nun (who is fasting herself to death) a Tibetan monk turned fighter, Sufi sages, "bhopas" (singers of epics) and "theyyam" (dancing gods) who double up as labourers and prison wardens to stave off abject poverty - it could easily have read like an exoticised roll-call of ascetics and zealots.

Yet he accomplishes his aim, offering elegantly told stories of personal hardship and spiritual triumph, as uplifting as they are elegiac.