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.