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Book Review: City of Djinns — An Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

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Trishla Gupta:

This book is a kind of a memoir recording the response of a single, gentle, merry and learned mind to the presence of an ancient city.

William Dalrymple peels back the layers of Delhi’s history, in a travelogue that goes back in time, from the 1984 riots, to Indraprastha, the mythical city of the Pandavas.

City of Djinns is William Dalrymple’s accounts of a year spent in Delhi, the Indian capital city. It is an account from the heart, in a candid conversational style, that makes a full circle of Delhi in every conceivable way.

He weaves his historical narrative with the accounts of his landlords in Delhi-Mrs. Puri, his practical minded thrifty lady, Balwinder Singh-the typical Sikh taxi driver, the mali (gardener), the sweeper, the cook and the eccentric Mr Puri. Gentle comic effect flows from his unfamiliarity as he learns to make sense of life in Delhi.

The prime focus of the author has been to walk through Old Delhi and dig up the history of the ruins and the narrow lanes, the people and the lives, the royalty and the social pariahs. Dalrymple dwells on the significance of Delhi in Asian history and tries to find signs of the old life still breathing in today’s capital. He wades through musty libraries and ancient documents, and locates hidden blocked pathways. He uncovers historical structures that are not tourist places anymore and hence, the people of India, themselves, are ignorant about. The abandoned city of Tughlaqabad, the house built by William Fraser and several such structures are not part of a tourist’s itinerary anymore, and hence, go absolutely unnoticed. He even breathes life into the still-famous structures like the Red Fort and the buildings of New Delhi (North & South blocks, Parliament, etc) in a unique style, that is neither like a historian nor like a traveler. He quotes generously from accounts of travelers to Delhi over different periods of time, not only talking about facts known in history text books but also about the gossip, the first-hand descriptions, the daily nitty-gritties from that era and so much more. He even gives a descriptive account of the Sufi faith as well as follows another thread where he pursues archaeological proof of whether the Mahabharata was myth or actual history. The author’s tone is not academic or preachy. Instead he takes the reader along with him on his journey around the city. He keeps shifting back and forth in time, talking about the present-day Delhi too — the cultural biases, the festivities and celebrations, the marriages, the demography and how it came about, the food and several other nuances of life in the capital city. In typical western style, Delhi’s weather inspires a good deal of lush embroidered descriptions of coppery skies, dust talcumed greenery, and the enervating heat of the summer. Each chapter deals with a period in Delhi’s history, in tandem with a season of Delhi’s weather.

One pattern however that the author follows is to try and find survivors in the present Delhi of every historical chapter he talks about. He traces the last direct descendants of the Mughals living in abject conditions in an Old Delhi haveli, the Anglo-Indians and how they fit into the Indian society after the British left, the British who had spent their childhood in India during the time of the Raj. Through these accounts, he sketches a living picture of everything he talks about. He also uncovers what has survived over the centuries — the Central-Asian unani strain of medicine still practiced in Old Delhi, the bird-fights, the dying art of calligraphy, the qawwalis at the shrine of Nizam-ud-din, the final prayer in fasting on the eve of Id at Jama Masjid.

For me, the book has been an eye-opener. It brings forth myriad details of the history of my country and my capital city that were unknown to me all these years. I’m sure there are millions of Indians who are still in absolute ignorance of the charm of their capital city and how it has been a central force in history and shaping the future. It is indeed a discovery at every step to know how much of our current music, food, language etc, that we take for granted, evolved in this city over century after century.

The wonder at learning things new, the honest observations, the discoveries tinged with familiarity and the gradual foundation of a long-standing relationship between the author and the subject are what make this book so much more colorful to read.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.

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  1. Neha Sharma

    Everytime I land up at Delhi to stand infront of any of it’s incalculatable historical monuments or ruins this book plays a silent music somwhere in my mind – this is the book that first gave me a vivid details of all seven capitals that this great city housed over the period of time.Be it the Lutyen’s New Delhi or Tughlaqabad Dalrymple ensured details of history in a scotch like smoothness of language.No Indian before this has ever tried to present Delhi to us in this way – a collector’s item and no doubt a guide that not only makes your travel easy but also make you a scolar when you really match it’s contains with what you could see in Delhi’s road. monuments,towers & by lanes – Hat’s off the “videshi” who knows our capital much more than us.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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