An exquisite deconstruction: City of Djinns by William Dalrymple πŸŒƒ

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

Looking for a travelogue on New Delhi !? Here’s a fantastic read πŸ“–

I bought it second hand from Blossoms on Church Street, Bangalore; published in 1994, the book still carries names of it’s prior owners; a handwritten inscription of Ms. Ramani from London and a sticker at the back with the full address of Ms. Stratford from Nobles, Church Lane, Sarratt.

I have never been to New Delhi till date and bought this book to read as a travelogue on the capital city. It’s a fabulous read and the city’s rich and dark history is brought to life in the most delightful and entertaining way.

In the book City of Djinns by William Dalrymple, the setting in New Delhi are the years immediately succeeding the sweeping policy of economic liberalisation in India by the P V Narasimha Rao govt. , early 1990s. The author and his wife are to spent a year in Delhi and they rent the upstairs of the house of an elderly rich middle class Sikh couple Mrs & Mr. Puri.

“But perhaps the strangest novelty of coming to live in India – stranger even than Mrs. Puri – was getting used to life with a sudden glut of domestic help.” notes the author.

The mali was followed first by Murti, the sweeper, then by Prasad, the dhobi and finally by Bahadur, Mrs. Puri’s Nepali cook.”Mrs. Puri,” I said “There as been a stream of strange people pouring in and out of my flat since seven-thirty.”

“Everyone has servants,” sais Mrs. Puri. “You must have servants too.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

To go about traversing the city, the author is introduced to the taxi driver Balvinder Singh and then onto the unwritten traffic laws on the congested city roads. And no Delhi description is complete without a visit and the resulting exasperation of getting things done from the govt. offices 😊. The author does not miss on that either !

Right of way belongs to the driver of the largest vehicle. Buses give way to heavy trucks, Ambassadors give way to buses and bicyclist’s give way to everything except pedestrians. On the road, as in many aspects of Indian life, Might is Right.

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

From the 1990s, the author travels back in time to unearth the stories that explain why the city is the way it is today – a mix of the old and new. From the common people of everyday life, he pieces together the accounts of the riots post Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.

Then moving on to the partition in 1947; the recollections from people of the horrific event is described poignantly and it helps to understand the resulting and even perhaps still existing societal differences and apathy. The stories are fantastic !

“The more I read, the more it became clear that the events of 1947 were the key to understanding modern Delhi. The old Urdu speaking elite who had inhabited the Delhi for centuries – both Hindu and Muslim – had traditionally looked down on the Punjabis as boorish yeoman farmers.

In their turn, the Punjabis despised the old Delhi-wallahs as effeminate, slothful and degenerate.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

He takes us through the walls of the Old City, to the last of the still standing havelis and also to Lutyens’s Delhi – New Delhi. The New Delhi was created to mark the relocation of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi and the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown in the early 1900s. The Old City was now in ruins. But….

“Whoever has built a new city in Delhi has always lost it: the Pandava brethren, Prithviraj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughluk, Shah Jehan…”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

The author arrived in Delhi in September and it is soon winter. We traverse further back in time from New Delhi to Old Delhi, to the Twilight era, from 1739 to 1857, marked by the decline in power of the Mughals and rise of the British Raj. It started with the establishment of a permanent British Residency at Delhi or then, Shahjahanabad.

“The early residents were a series of sympathetic and slightly eccentric Scotsmen, whose love and respect for India was reflected by their adoption of Indian modes of dress and Indian ways of living.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

The author delves into the colourful lives of William Fraser and Col. James Skinner; the latter set the tone for the travails of Anglo Indians who after independence emigrated en masse to America, Canada, and Australia.

“Hindus and British were both too proud of their blood for ‘half-castes’ ever to be really successful. As the nineteenth century progressed, such horrible prejudice only increased. Any hint of ‘black blood’ brought out the worst of Victorian bigotry and in Delhi, Skinner’s children became the butt of snide British jokes.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

We further travel back in time to Old Delhi in the 17th century after the death of Aurangzeb and the Mughal empire reduced to a fraction of its former size.

“As the aristocracy gradually lost all interest in war and soldiering, they diverted their remaining funds into frequenting courtesans, patronizing poets, holding mehfils and constructing pavilions and pleasure gardens.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

The author gives us a brief glimpse into the cloistered world of hijras (eunuchs) who were treated poles apart in Hindu and Muslim traditions. Next we move on to the golden era of Mughal rule, the reign of Shah Jahan. The author’s Mughal chronicles are about espionage and drama that unfolded in the empire impacting the succession to the Peacock throne during latter years of Shah Jahan’s rule, pieced together from the accounts of two European travellers – the French doctor Francois Bernier and the Italian Niccolao Manucci. The Red Fort was Shah Jahan’s palace, he built the Jama Masjid and the grand boulevard of Chandni Chowk.

“Shah Jehan was forty-seven when he decided to move his court from Agra to Delhi. he had just lost his wife; his children were now grown up. The building of a new city was the middle-aged Emperor’s bid for immortality.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

We move again now to the 14th century, pre-Mughal and the rule of Muhammed bin Tughlaq; a ruler whose inhuman atrocities are mentioned by every author who writes about the Tughlaq dynasty; but nevertheless amassed a large empire.

“From here, the grim Hazar Ustan or Thousand Pillared Palace, Tughluk ruled the largest and most powerful empire India has known since the time of Ashoka, one and a half millennia previously. From here he controlled a web of spies and informers that ran from Madurai to Attock (in Pakistan), from the beaches of Malabar to the mangrove swamps of Bengal.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

And now entering India is Ibn Battuta and his caravan; the famed Moroccan traveller was almost on the verge of being executed by the Sultan; but he lived and returned home to write his adventures. The author pieces the stories of Tughlukabad and the move to the temporary capital of Daulatabad.

As the months fly, season’s change, the cold Delhi winter changes to the unbearable summer and like all Delhiites, the author and wife head to the hill station of Shimla.

Finally it’s the month of the Monsoon in north, July and the author ploughs back into history – the pre-Muslim Delhi; the era of Rajputs and Prithviraj Chauhan. And still further back – 900 BC to the Mahabharata; is there a Delhi connect with the Pandavas and maybe to the Vedas !?

A Delhi of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sufis and dervishes; the author narrates stories of Djinns and Khizr; it’s a historical adventure that gives you a grand tour of Delhi and an actual visit now to the capital city will not enthrall as much as does the stories and places when we traverse with the author. But what of the Djinn’s….!? 😊

“I saw for the first time the secret Delhi which lies hidden from those who only know the city the from ground level.”

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

The author narrates the unsightly but human face of the erstwhile Delhi rulers hidden behind the veil of opulence and grandeur. They are depicted brave and beautiful in the paintings and memoirs we read, but the author digs deeper and unearths anticlimax that usually marks the end of these celebrated names. It is sad that many of the historical monuments described are in dilapidated condition. It’s a journey into Delhi’s past and present, which the author has searched and researched over a year and more; and so you need a break after each chapter as you hop onto this captivating time travel. It’s a book you must read; the history is narrated in the most engaging manner; it’s fun and informative at the same time.

Till next post, take care !!


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