Dalrymple (using translators) engaged in conversation with people over a period of several years from East to West and North to South in India. These people followed a path leading out of their previous ordinary lives, into an extraordinary and extended search. Some like the devotees of Yellamma assume the mantle of a goddess worshipped by believers. Some, like the Thiyyam dancers become the possessed and frenzied indwelling of gods for three months of their life during the festival time. Still others like the Jain nuns endure the ascetic life of monasteries and extended pilgrimages, detaching themselves from pleasures so as to realise the permanent and the indestructible in their souls.
In his travels Dalrymple said he had the most fun with the Bauls of Bengal; but the most affecting episode for him was the tale of the Jain nun who attains to Sallekhana, the final one among all Jain renunciations, that of the body.
Dalrymple answered questions about the method he used, and how he selected the people to interview. He also responded to those who cast doubt on the value of religion.
Dalrymple read with the intense, yet intimate, feeling of a conversation, much as if we were in the presence of the very people he had lived with and interviewed. He is almost absent from the stories of the nine lives he describes, and lets the engrossing accounts of their lives be told in their own words. Many quotations from the four readings were unforgettably aphoristic in nature.
Dalrymple happily signed books for the legion of booklovers when they converged at the end. DC Books arranged for his books to be on sale at a counter; Penguin India organised the snacks and cocktail hour which followed.
A fuller account is here.