‘The City of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple is a book that my brother insisted, I must read if I want to understand Delhi and its rich heritage. However, I thought it to be a travel book, which may attract the first time tourists, but would not appeal to a seasoned Delhiite like myself.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! The book is not a travelogue but an entertaining, absorbing novel with characters like the stern but slightly eccentric Puris, raw Balwinder and the reticent Scholar Javed Sayeed. William based this novel on the one year he spent in Delhi , from September 1989 to August 1990. He establishes an early rapport by narrating humorous incidents and dialogues, he had with his land lord – Puris and his taxi driver Balwinder and very cleverly uses their past experiences to talk about the first major event of the current history – the Riots of 1984. After a heart rending description of the riots and the effect it produced on the people of Delhi, and especially the Sikh community, he focuses his attention onto the partition of 1947 and the way it affected Delhiites and Anglo Indians.
William peels off layer after layer of Delhi’s history, exposing the reality of the onion domed mosques and grand forts of Delhi, showing the true muck hidden beneath the magnificent halls and decorated walls of Lutyen’s Delhi and Mughal’s Delhee . Almost every monument in Delhi tells a story of the destruction of the previous culture. He shows how many Hindu temples and shrines were looted and desecrated to make the extravagant tombs and humungous forts, how every ruler trampled onto Delhi to lend his own color to an ancient land. But, in the end, everyone was taken into the motherly embrace of the city and became a part and parcel of the vast culture, and continues to affect the present citizens as well.
The author focuses on the lesser highlighted era of history, particularly the era of East India Company, when Englishmen like William Fraser and Skinner, did not act as the stiff lipped Britishers, but tried to blend into Indian culture and become a part of the ruled people, showing interest in their lifestyles and adapting to their taste. He tells the history in such an entertaining way that I felt that his interesting digressions about Sufis, djinns and eunuchs were more of an interference in the otherwise interesting tale. However, to give due credit to William, he never for once, tried to denigrate something, his voice was always that of an unbiased narrator, doing justice to every facet of the history.
I have been in Delhi for my entire life, and made numerous trips to Red fort, Qutub Minar and Old Delhi, but I always looked at these places as ruins of a bygone era, and never tried to look into the times when they were erected and never for once believed, them to be places of bustling cultural activities. However, after reading Williams’ book, all these places have acquired a new color for me. Now, I would be able to see beyond the crumpled, narrow gullies of Chandni chowk and imagine the huge havelis, where the amirs and poets lived, regard Hindu Rao Hospital as a monument housing Fraser’s house, and even consider the Inderprastha – the pandavas capital, lying beneath the soils, waiting to be unearthed.
In short, the book is an entertaining, delightful reflection on the culture and history of Delhi, seen through the eyes of a non-assuming, unbiased writer William Dalrymple. It is a must read for history buffs and even more so, for those who consider history as a boring, mugging subject. I only wish that I could have read History in this manner, in my school and learnt about our heritage during t hose hurried school picnics of Delhi monuments.