Book Review: City of Djinns - William Dalrymple

I was first introduced to William Dalrymple in Michael Wood’s documentary, The Story of India. I watched it nearly eight years ago. The scene was shot in a Kali temple where devotees had gathered on the eve of Holi. Dalrymple is explaining what Holi means to Hindus, looking at a spot slightly off-camera. The timing of his narration is such that as soon as he finishes talking, the nearly hundred devotees in the temple throw up their hands and started dancing to chants of “Jai Mata Di” and “Holi hai”. Dalrymple then proceeds to tie a handkerchief around his head and disappears into the crowd, walking towards the shrine of Kali, just as the screen bursts with gulal. This, he does with a dexterity that a seasoned Indian, even one accustomed to crowded temples, would find hard to match.

City of Djinns, among other things, holds the answer to why Dalrymple is so at ease in India. Twenty years ago, when it was published, this book would have been the quintessential handbook to Delhi. I’ve myself been living in Delhi for well over a year and I haven’t fully understood it, not that I believed there is much to be understood. Over the last couple of years I have gathered quite a few books about the history of Delhi (by extension, the history of India). I stand corrected that there is much to explore, much to understand about Delhi. Among these books, City of Djinns is unique in that it makes you feel as if the Delhi of twenty years ago is just out of grasp - as if you could touch it if only you stretched your hand out a little. As you proceed with the book, you realize that this is exactly what Dalrymple must have felt when he was researching the Delhies that came before this book. There was a unique Delhi of 1984, of 1947 and of 1857. There was a Delhi quintessentially of the East India Company, of the Mughals, of the Sultanate and of the Rajputs. Like annotated layers of soil in an excavation site, this book takes you deeper into the history of Delhi.

There are many moments of academic euphoria for the studious in City of Djinns. When Dalrymple writes about Zafar or Ghalib, you can’t help but remember Gulzar’s Ibteda from the DD series on Ghalib. When he mentions Aurangzeb, you can’t help but hear the gruff drone of Om Puri from Benegal’s Discovery of India. Any serious student of history will find that this book is a lot more than a travelogue, wittily punctuated with eccentric characters and Indian idiosyncrasies. As for me, all I want to do is grab my camera and find out when the next heritage walk is going to happen.

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