Author: William Dalrymple
Published in the year: 1994
Genre: Non-fiction/ Memoir
For Dalrymple, who has come to acquire the status of a formidable travel writer today, it was City Of Djinns that marked the beginning of his fascination with Mughal history. For the book, part travelogue and memoir, the author spent nearly a year in Delhi unravelling the city's archaeological riches. What looked like a fling with India soon turned into a lasting romance, and the Scottish author followed it up with two more books on related themes that became the centrepiece of his literary career - White Mughals and The Last Mughal. While the former is about the early relationship between the English and native Indians, The Last Mughal largely is based on events around the 1857 revolt and the ouster of Delhi’s last king, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Both the above books were born out of City of Djinns. Dalrymple had visited Delhi when he was all of seventeen and was instantly under its spell. "It was so totally unlike anything I had seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horror, it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter...Moreover - I soon discovered - possessed a bottomless seam of stories, tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend," he says in his introduction.
The whole city, then, seemed to be an endless and fascinating journey of discovery to the author, who had already by then acquired a reputation as a stunning travel writer with his first book In Xanadu. Still only 25, Dalrymple brought with him a sense of adventure and a charming wide-eyed curiosity to Delhi that he put together in this elegant, lush memoir. 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. Many interesting character dot his domestic world. His land lady Mrs Puri, who likes to govern things with an iron hand, and his cab driver, Balvinder, a loutish, pan-chewing Punjabi fellow - are coloured with vivid, ironic strokes. Charmingly, Dalrymple was also newly married around this time, and provides a very flattering portrayal of his artist-wife Olivia, who has done the illustrations for the book. The maps and monuments she draws are really pretty, though much of the sketches have a distinct exotic, western gaze - man smoking hookah, an old cobbler, qawwali singers, a eunuch and so one.
The author slowly peels the many layers of Delhi, by tracing the antecedents of the city’s famous monuments. It opens up a long and bloody history of conquerors and blood-shed, of periods of glory and despondency, of exile and re-settlement. Darlymple’s journey touches upon the after effects of the Indo-Pak partition on its inhabitants, the Sikh revolt in the 80s. From contemporary history, he goes back to the Raj, and extensively covers the period which saw a rapid change in the British attitude to the natives. All this happened within a century. The Whites who came either as part of the East India Company or as scholars, were reverential to the Mughals. They imbibed the Orient culture, married Indian women.... But as the power of the East India company grew and the British conclusively established their rule in most of India, the equations drastically altered, and the natives were all shunned. The Anglo-Indians, in fact, suffered the worst blow, as they found no acceptance on either side. Dalrymple speaks to a few Anglo-Indians who survived that period, and their inputs are quite telling. Most of them consider themselves as full—blown British. One such old couple is Marion and Jeo Fowler, who describe with delight one of their brief visits to England. They talk about the great food, the picturesque landscaps and the sense of equality that prevails there. There is a hint of regret at not being able to live in a place they believe to be their right. “It was that Mrs Thatcher. She never liked Anglo-Indians. She made it very hard for us. All her rules and regulations,” they bemoan.
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. Yet, the author observes that this outward refinement in art and etiquette was a cover for some of the most crude and heinous of crimes committed.
Delving deeper into Delhi’s history, the author gives vivid portrayals of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim, Moroccan traveller, who wrote about his journeys and Tughluk Khan, one of the most barbaric rulers of the 14th century.
Clearly, Dalrymple summons up tremendous amounts of patience, as he painstakingly gets to the bottom of the city’s historical treasures. The entire endeavour brims with passion, and equally impressive is the maturity and restraint that Dalrymple brings to his excellent writing.
The author is seldom critical, except when he talks about the neglect by the Indian authorities of important archaeological sites or his harrowing experience at the customs. At other times, he prefers letting his ironic narration do the talking.
It need not be added then that any reader of City Of Djinns will view Delhi is a completely new light.