Raghu's Reviews > City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
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Dec 29, 2010

it was amazing

'City of Djinns: a year in Delhi" is probably the finest book on the city of Delhi covering mostly its recent history of 400 years. It is lovingly and passionately researched and is embellished with endearing encounters. The author spends a whole year in Delhi in 1989 and researches for four more years to produce this gem of a book. It was of particular interest to me as I lived in Delhi for five years in the mid- 1970s. This book teaches me how little I knew of the city and its history. The author was just 25 years old in 1989 and shows what a scholar and culturally-sensitive person he was, especially coming from as foreign a culture as that of Scotland. He talks about the many Delhis that exist and has existed in the past.
He starts out with India's partition and reveals poignantly the chasm between the old Delhi-wallahs and the new Punjabi immigrants after partition. The Urdu-speaking elite - both Hindu and Muslim - who inhabited the city for centuries during the Mughal and British times looked down on the 'boorish, uncultured' Punjabi immigrants. Their memories of Delhi consisted of Mushairas and mehfils (literary evenings) of great Delhi poets, subtlety and perfection in Urdu and the Delhi cuisine. They saw the new Punjabi immigrants as essentially colonizing farmers. On the other side, the Punjabis see the old Delhiites as lazy, indolent, slothful and effeminate. Consequently, the two Delhis never really meet and mingle. In his research on the old Delhi-wallahs, Dalrymple even goes and meets Ahmed Ali, a quintessential old Delhi elite, who ends up in Karachi much against his will as a result of the partition of India. Ahmed Ali tragically spews venom on partition and Pakistan. But he wouldn't set foot in Delhi even when he accidentally lands in Delhi airport. 'I won't put foot on that soil which was sacred to me and has been desecrated' says Ahmed Ali.
Dalrymple also reflects deeply on the New Delhi of the architect Lutyens. He says that the Imperial Delhi of Lutyens reminds him of Nuremberg. To quote his brilliant prose, - '...in its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption, there was a distant but distinct echo of something Fascist or even Nazi about the great acropolis of Imperial Delhi.....Authoritarian regimes tend to leave the most solid souvenirs; art has a strange way of thriving under autocracy. Only the vanity of an Empire - an Empire emancipated from the constraints of democracy, totally self-confident in its own judgement and still, despite everything, assured of its own superiority - could have produced Lutyens' Delhi."
Dalrymple explores the many Mughal monuments in Delhi and delves into the city's life in Mughal times. As I read on, I realized that much of the Mughal history in India that was taught to me in high-schools was mostly a sanitised and untrue version of reality. The brutalities of Mohammed-bin-Tughlak, the massacres in Delhi at the hands of Nadir Shah and Mohammed Ghori and the unjust rule of Aurangzeb have been spelt out in detail in the book. On reflection, I suppose it is just as well that the truth not be told to young minds in India as it would only contribute to greater chasm between Hindus and Muslims. Perhaps, the incestuous advances of Emperor Shah Jahan towards his daughter Jahanara could have been hinted at in our text books!
The book examines the legacy of the many living Sufi legends such as Hazrat Nizamuddin, Khwaja Khizr and Moin-ud-din-Chishti and shows the strength of the syncretic culture of India. The author shows us the diversity of Delhi through his meetings with Unani medicine practitioners, pigeon-fanciers, the eunuchs of the city, traditional calligraphers and other religious healers. The lighter side is seen through his Sikh landlady Mrs.Puri and her husband and Dalrymple's favored taxi-driver Balvinder Singh of the International Backside Taxis!
This is at once a travel book, a book on Delhi's history, the diary of an young, erudite man as well as an account of a pilgrimage. It is simply a brilliant work.
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