“City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi”: William Dalrymple’s Travelogue Review

The following book review may contain spoilers. Please continue reading at your own discretion.

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Between unmanageable crowded Ghats, markets, and traffic lie the northern plains of the centuries-old nerve center of India called the City of Djinns, now known as Delhi. Legend says, “he who rules Delhi, rules India.” City of Djinns by William Dalrymple is one of those brilliant narratives, which leaves you pondering over the past and present of a city that you call home. Delhi as a society has inhabited diverse communities and individuals, who throughout history have consistently followed a similar pattern of hierarchy and appeared in new reincarnations.

In the very prologue to the book, Dalrymple celebrates the unique characteristics of the city, its annihilation, redefinition, and colonial past. The prologue provides the readers with the journey in the history and culture of Delhi, a journey into the Orient with tales of Sufi’s and Djinns, decadent emperors with their harems and courtesans, beautiful Oriental women, and fights of partridge. Dalrymple, by penning down his colonial hegemonic strategies, exhibits his fascination for India and particularly for Delhi.

Moreover, readers are taken on a ride to the old world of Eunuchs, Suffis, Calligraphers, and Khalifas. Facts of the past signify fodder for William Dalrymple’s travel ruminations and his travel story is skillfully woven together to create a rich tapestry of humanity, history, culture, architecture, horror, and humor. The author truly manages to bring out the ‘India lives in many centuries’ adage in his own words: “a portrait of a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns.” Dalrymple’s texts repeatedly consider the British Raj and its legacies. The relationship between Indians and Britons is arguably represented through a sentimental and nostalgic lens. The narrative authority is principally achieved through autobiographical experience and the cultural capital authority of the author.

Dalrymple claims, “All the different ages of man were represented in the people of the city. Different millennia co-existed side by side.”

In the first chapter, the author introduces us to Delhi’s high pollution, population, crime, and congestion but still, the city has been successful in preserving its old history in the form of monuments, narrow lanes, ruins, the people, and the traditions. The author looks hard enough to discover the signs of the old life still alive in today‘s capital. For this, he finds survivors of each era in the present and thus manages to showcase a history series of past and present simultaneously. We are introduced to Delhi with acuity about a particular period of history that is nourished through a living person or a ruin. In chapter two, readers are taken back to the timeline of the assassination of Indira Gandhi on the 31st of October, 1984. Her Sikh security guard, sub-inspector Beant Singh, pulled out his revolver and shot her. This was followed by a volley of bullets from the gun of Beant Singh’s friend and associate Constable Satwant Singh. Readers encounter that within an interval of three hours, an alarm by the empty streets stow away vehicles from the public eye fearing there was a riot brewing in the city driven by strong anti-Sikh sentiment.

Dalrymple in particular lauds the novel Twilight in Delhi as the final evocation of a world forever vanished. He likens the ambition and the scale of those British colonial hegemonic strategies to those of Nazi Germany, remarking the presence, still nostalgically evoked through his writing. In fact, he then references the modern Indian period of the Raj which seems as distant and irrelevant as references to the Roman world in contemporary history.

The author travels back to the partition time and the riots of 1984 and meets different people in observing scars that are still healing up with the bloody history of conquerors, bloodshed, periods of glory and despondency, of exile, and resettlement. From the British era, the book travels back to the luxuriant Shah Jahan period, where a bloody battle for succession broke out between his two sons Dara Shikoh and Aurangazeb. It was also a period where the Mughals were at the zenith of glory and wealth. He is astonished to find that people in Delhi have witnessed the ugliest face of violence and hatred.

Besides uncovering grand, epic stories around the city, the book is punctuated with delightful daily-life anecdotes that Dalrymple narrates with a mix of bemused exasperation and empathy.