There are not many books written about Delhi. Although there are so many avenues that the city offers for writers. So many facets, so many contradictions, and contrasts, so much history, so many influences, so much power that each can have a series of books on it. In fact, as I write this it almost feels that Delhi has so much of so many things. City of Djinns is one of the few books that talk about Delhi. Its past and how it has changed. How there are relics of each era still living within it. The influences of each one who wanted to rule the world from this city. The ones who perished and the ones who continue to live irrespective of everything else. I always believe that every book has a time in your life.
This book City of Djinns came into my hand exactly when I am trying to explore Delhi. The city that is home at this point in time.
The book begins by describing the name of the book. How the author was told by a Sufi saint that Delhi is a city of Djinns. But to me, the author has actually visited various Djinns that define this city and its various eras. There are some Djinns who the author visited who define Delhi as it exists today. Some Djinns he dug and found out in the bylanes and ruins of this age-old city. Some he visited through the written word, through letters and books of travelers of those days. And some he visited through the majestic ruins left behind by the djinns. And it is through these stories of the Djinns that he weaves a story for us hovering over this ever powerful city.
City of Djinns is a well-rounded book that presents the various aspects of the city. Both as they exist today and as they would have existed in the known history and as they may have existed in the lesser known times. It is a book written with lots of observations and through numerous conversations. Deriving inferences from them but without any judgments made of any kind. Author along with his wife spent a year in Delhi and discovered the city. He speaks of the present through his landlords, his taxi driver and by making you feel the weather of the city. He takes you to various eras through his interactions with the people who are remnants of those eras, through the various structures that punctuate the city. And through the literature that he read during this time.
The author points to some interesting observations about the myths around this city. Like that the kings and emperors who built the city came and went leaving behind just the buildings. But the saints of the city continue to live irrespective of who rules the city and how big the kingdom is. He also shares a myth that whoever built Delhi lost it, which has not been proved otherwise till now. Right from the time of Pandavas till the British who were the last ones to build the New Delhi. At the same time whoever came here from anywhere has left a mark that continues to be an integral part of the city.
He also observes that through the ages the rulers of Delhi have tried to create a city here that would be best in the world. Be it Pandavas, be it Lodhis, be it Shahajahan and be it British. Does it not make you stop and think what the present government is trying to do?
I could connect with his observations around the monuments of Delhi. Having visited them recently, though a lot of them are in far better shape today than they would have been the early 90s. The Red Fort feels something that may have been majestic. But also stinks of a lot of blood that it has seen. Something there makes you feel low. While places like Qutab Minar you can actually look at the Minar or the ruins around it and imagine the majestic feel that it would have had in its hay days. At the Red Fort, my imagination failed me, it seemed the place has no soul.
This book City of Djinns re-enforces my belief that you need a foreigner’s eye to observe a city. Or space from all angles and without being inclined by the weight of belonging. As a native, you tend to miss the obvious. You tend to be swayed by the conditioning of your growing up in a culture which is usually a small part of the overall culture of the city. As an outsider, you can look at all that without being a part of it. Without any prejudices while still being involved in it.
City of Djinns is the first book that I have read by the author. And I am looking forward to reading the other ones too. I would recommend this book City of Djinns to everyone who lives in this city. And anyone who visits it or is interested in Delhi. The book also cites a lot of other books that you can out on potentially put on your reading list.
I am also trying to read more about Delhi. So if you know of any other interesting books on Delhi, please do let me know.
Buy this book – City of Djinns A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple at Amazon India.