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

Posted on June 18, 2010

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.