City of Djinns

The “City of Djinns” doesn’t need any introduction. Neither the book nor the mystical city. William Dalrymple, born in Scotland, visited India around 1989 and stayed for 4 years during which he penned the book – ‘City of Djinns’. This book won the Thomas Cook travel book award. This is the story of one year in our very own city – Delhi, the city of Djinns. Djinns are supposedly another race like us, fashioned from fire, spirits invisible to the naked eye – one needs to fast and pray to see them.

William Dalrymple describes Delhi as “Full of riches and heroes, a labyrinth city of palaces, open gutters, filtered light through filigree lattices, choke of fumes and whiff of spices”. He unveils the ‘seven dead cities’ of Delhi in his book, the current being the 8th. Some even count the number as 15. These are nothing but a representation of the number of times Delhi has been destroyed and rebuilt. There are pieces of history lingering in every such city. Different areas of Delhi, preserve different centuries, even different millennia. Punjabi immigrants (form the recent day Delhi), old majors in Lodhi garden, old city eunuchs speaking courtly Urdu, Sadhus at Nigambodh ghat (depicting Indraprastha – first Delhi from Mahabharat) all form Delhi. Indraprastha was invaded & burned and yet it rose like a phoenix from fire, like hindus believe.

WD’s landlady for these 4 years was Mrs. Puri, a sikh from Lahore, expelled during partition, lost everything, rebuilt from scratch (like most punjabi immigrants). Her husband who was intermittently senile (he went crazy since 1984 Sikh riots), firmly believed that Mr. William had kept some mules ‘upstairs’. WD’s book talks about his experiences as a foreigner in this city – unused to domestic help and traffic snarls, his trysts with MTNL (which he called ‘an empire dedicated to beuracratic obfuscation), Delhi marriages which go on throughout the night, festivals like Holi, Diwali, Id, Dussehra and the fervour with which these are celebrated. WD goes on to talk about the 1984 riots, the partition and how these incidents affected people. The account is interspersed with amusing wit where his sikh driver – Balwinder Singh – points out ‘eye candy’ on the streets (clearly something WD is totally unused to) or tries communicating in his limited english resulting in some humourous misunderstandings. WD describes Shahjehanabad – the city established by Shah Jehan. He also visits Karachi where they asked him about certain ‘gullis’, or whether the streets still looked the same as before partition, (through whatever was left of them in their memory). There he meets the author of the book ‘Twilight in Delhi’ – a very good and accurate account of Delhi before the partition. Karachi itself looked very similar to Delhi – reconstructed.

People in Delhi believe in a certain prophecy that whosoever builds a new city, consequently loses it. History vouches for the same. Pandavas, Prithviraj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughlak, Shah Jahan are all examples of that. WD moves on to describe Lutyens Delhi and specifically its architecture. He gives accounts of someone who had seen it being built as a child. Events like the persian massacres of 1739 and the British recapture of 1857 are woven into his historical account. He writes about Nadir Shah and the British Resident – Sir David Ochterlony – who lived like a Moghul. He beautifully highlights the cultural amalgamation that followed in terms of the architecture in this era in ‘Dehlee’ and ‘Hurriyana’. Till date, the British residency supposedly retains some part of the mughal architecture (the moghul ruins on which it was built). WD also happens to read the letters from one particular British Resident – 183 years later at the same desk at which the resident wrote them. He writes about Angloindians, who suffer the worst racial prejudices of Indians and the British Both.

His culturally rich, amply researched and historically lush account mentions a lot of aspects of all cultures that Delhi has seen – for eg. Kabootar Baazi – a sport prevalent in old Delhi, Eunuchs and the way they exist. He talks about historical figures like Shah Jehan, Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb, Roshanara Begum, their related history and their associated establishments – Shahjehanabad, Aurangabad, Roshanara Bagh, Shalimar Bagh etc. He writes about how Aurangzeb ousted his favoured brother Dara Shikoh and crowned himself in Shalimar Bagh, beheaded Dara Shikoh and sent his head on a platter to an imprisoned Shah Jehan just before his prison meal. The barbaric nature of the Moghuls is clearly evident through several tales.

This book also brings to light several interesting things to the unaware reader. Apart from the cultural, historical, architectural narratives, it contains things which I am sure many of us never knew. He mentions that the Britishers are to blame for diverting the ‘Jumna’ and laying in its place a main road so that the Mughal pavillions in Red Fort look out not to a source of water but onto a road – MG Road, one of the most noisy and polluted stretch of the Ring Road! WD also interviews Fakeerah Sultan Begum – the great grand daughter of Aurangzeb(!) who’s still alive and talks about Delhi as “her” city.

A ‘must read’ is a mild description for this book. More than a book, it is a time travel machine which takes you back several years and several centuries without never really leaving the present. It makes you realise that you were unaware of such treasures in your own backyard all this while. This enriching and informative book makes history look like an interesting dream where some bits are still fresh in my mind, bits where I experience the thrill of discovering something, some bits are sadly erased permanently and I am unable to recollect them and then there are still some, which I am trying to recollect, by digging deep through my memory. I want to know more by exploring whatever I have today. Something that textbook history could never achieve. Go ahead and read this book for accounts of Ibn Batuta’s travel adventures, Yunani medicine, Hakims, Hindi Gaalis!, Nizamuddin saints, Elusive eunuchs, Djinns which got captured, Kaurav’s capital – Hastinapur and many more interesting things while I take a copy with me to revisit Shalilmar Bagh, Roshanara Bagh, and Begumpur (On way to Mehrauli) where Mohd. Bin Tughlak had his palace. Not every city has a spirit of its own, but djinns or no djinns, Delhi does.

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