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Reflections: ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ (1993) by William Dalrymple


Dalrymple is a Journalist and a Historian is a visitor to Delhi and the book is as much a chronicle of his year spent in the city as a text on its history. The book is simultaneously an autobiographical account of his research on the city as a historian and a travel guide book. As he moves in a chronologically reverse direction from his present day, each subsequent period is established through the multiple imperialist regimes that established their capitals in Delhi. Dalrymple is trying to unravel Delhi as a city made up of many cities that existed in the various periods and its many different lived realities. Through the book he appears in search of survivors of every era in the architecture (Lutyen’s Delhi, the settlement of Trilokpuri, Chandni Chowk Havelis, The Tughlaqabad Tomb, Fraser’s house etc), the people (Balwinder Singh, Marion and Joe Fowler, the Hijras), the practices (calligraphy, cock-fighting, Unani medicine), the experts (Dr Jaffrey, Dr BB Lal) and the written accounts (Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire, Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali, Muraqqa’-e-Dehli by Kuli Khan and many others).

There is an overriding pattern in each chapter, beginning with the author’s personal discovery – a stroll through a monument or a precinct followed by interviews of survivors and practices that become a link to the past. These accounts are interspersed with explanations from the various literary sources that Dalrymple can access which range from translated Persian texts to Bernier’s accounts which provides for reporting and gossip about the Mughal court, to Ibn Battuta’s accounts of his stay in Delhi. Dalrymple also finds himself personally intertwined in the narrative through the discovery of his wife’s Scottish, East India Company employed ancestor, William Fraser’s personal letters which become a first-hand literary resource in the book.

But it is the author’s journey of discovery that becomes the agent to move the book along, told as a narrative account of his research and chronologically faithful to the year he spends doing the research in Delhi. In one sense, City of Djinns is a post-colonial text - A historical account of the National Capital of Delhi. Dalrymple’s fondness for Delhi is palpable and he seems in awe of the city, while at the same time trying to be factually truthful and scholarly in his writing. Through its varied literary sources that range from other historical travelogues and memoirs, literary fiction and translations the book is clearly making several inter-textual references. Further his use of monuments as a material text that embodies history as well as oral histories also makes the book a post-modernist text. The book also has interesting examples of micro-histories within the larger history, for example the history of the Eunuchs and the change in perception about them from the times of the Mahabharata to the Mughal period.

Dalrymple is also interested in how power plays out within the physical and cultural space of a city through the various survivors (monuments and people) he encounters. The past, for the survivors of those that were ever in power, is always idyllic. The book encounters all the pasts simultaneously in the author’s present and it becomes his job to interpret the nostalgia. As one meets the survivors living in the shadow of the once powerful past through the relatively fast paced narrative of the book, in some sense time collapses for the reader. Through the chapters the narrative unravels the patterns of epochal similarities, even though there are radical differences that dominate the major narrative of each era. Dalrymple himself can be accused of indulging in the nostalgia of the Imperialist in his account of the British period.

As a British man himself, he is a descendant of the coloniser and he comes at the subject with an outsider’s point of view often expressed in his account of things like Indian weddings or the bride’s role in an Islamic Nikaah. He never actually expresses the baggage of the coloniser, even when he reveals his wife’s ancestors to be active participants in the British colonial army. Yet his bias does come through in his accounts of the benevolent Fraser and his loyal natives. Or his favourable opinion on the more a bumbler- less a bigot Lutyen’s Capitol in comparison to Nehru’s Capitol in Chandigarh. In City of Djinn’s Delhi always stays exotic for Dalrymple despite the year he spends in the city. This also squarely puts the book in a way into Western writing on the Orient, which perhaps suggests that the book is intended for a Western reader. It is also possible to speculate that the author is casting himself in the role of his colonial ancestors by emulating their documentation of the colony. As a chronicler of Delhi’s history Dalrymple is trying to preserve its monuments and lost culture from being lost, saving the city from its present and future. Dalrymple even asks such a question of one of his interviewees when he asks her “Do you think British rule was justified?” (Dalrymple, 1993, p. 80).

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Text: Ekta Idnany Photos: © Sahil Latheef

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