William Dalrymple, a Scotsman, lived in Delhi for four years, beginning in 1989. This stay became the seed for this travel-history-memoir, marked with sincere research and sparkling wit. The city’s many wrappings of history, its layered personality through the ages, its complex division of contrasting images, all catch the author’s inquisitive eye as he goes about exploring layer after layer with the passion of an archaeologist and brings the same vitality back for the reader. From the ancient times of the great Indian epic Mahabharata, to the reign of the Mughal dynasty, from scrutinizing the architecture of the British in the city while they were ruling India (the part designed by the British is what came to be known as New Delhi, thus dividing it from Old Delhi) to talking to the descendants of the Mughal empire and interacting with mystic sufis–Dalrymple’s is a journey that switches between aeons time and again, resulting in a vast, multi-hued canvas of the Indian capital’s history.
As I hinted earlier, the book held a personal interest for me. I will admit I was a little skeptical when I started reading it though. This is the sort of skepticism that comes from the typical Western style of interpreting India. A lot of judgment overshadowing observation creeps into the narrative of foreigners recounting their experiences in India. Yes, this is a poor, third-world country, yes, a lot of images (poverty, squalor, congestion) here are not exactly what the Western eyes are attuned to witness. But that’s not all this land is about. Trust me, I was born here.
City of Djinns, however, comes as a refreshing read in this respect. While the author does throw in a lot of humour by way of telling us about his practical landlady, Mrs. Puri and his taxi-driver-with-attitude, Balwinder Singh, he draws what can best be called a heartfelt, affectionate picture of the city that was his home for four years (the book covers one year of his stay in Delhi). A workable grasp of Hindi in his armour, he does a fantastic job of interviewing different sections of people–from the Sikhs who were at the receiving end of a religious riot in 1984, to descendants of Anglo-Indians who carry on living a ‘misfit’ existence (not fully accepted by the Indian society and excluded by the British back home), to eunuchs whose sad lives make the reader cringe.
As I read through the book, I was enamoured by its compelling power to grasp me as a reader. Given the amount of history and information it packs within its covers, it doesn’t become dry or info-dump-like at any point. In fact, the more I read, the more I wanted to read. It was as if I was discovering the city I had lived in for so many years for the first time!
Indeed, City of Djinns was an eye-opener that left me feeling embarrassed. I hardly knew my city. Reading the book made me realize how many obvious clues of history, scattered all over the city, had I let pass my notice. The book made me love my city more, made me care more for the fascinating stories its monuments held within their walls. It taught me to be more observant of the nuggets of the past that beckoned to me at turns and corners through the length and breadth of this vast and ancient-modern city.
When a book does that to you, rest assured it has achieved its purpose. With remarkable authority even.
Note: This is the second of my posts on some top-quality non-fiction books I have read. It is a follow up to my post Not Fiction? Not a Bore.