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.
City of Djinns is absolutely devoid of any format. In fact, the manner in which the chapters have been formed escape a reader’s logic, because a single chapter might contain accounts of absolutely different subjects. 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.
The author simply talks about everything. The tone is not academic or preachy. Instead he takes the reader along with him on his journey around the city. The smaller details of his landlady, his taxi-driver, his experiences in government offices, what time he woke up, his personal reflections etc gives a fictional side to the book. He also makes sure he does not overburden the reader with a high dose of history. 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. He clocks them with the time of year, talking about the extreme seasons and weather conditions in the capital.
There is no denying that Dalrymple has done his homework well. He has Delhi’s history on his fingertips. From the Delhi sultanate to the Mughals, from the British to the Partition, from Aurangzeb usurping the throne to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 – he talks about it all. 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.
One pattern 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. The line between history and present-day, though stark, is rendered rather thin by the author.
City of Djinns is William Dalrymple’s first offering in the series of books he has written on different Indian aspects. It is during the writing of this book that he gradually fell in love with India and it’s peculiar ways. Evidently, the honeymoon with India shows in every page of the book. 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.
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.