Review of City of Djinns – A Year in Delhi; William Dalrymple; Penguin; pp 350
– Shana Susan Ninan
The city of Delhi, rather Dilli as old-timers recall, has been plundered, ruled over, built and rebuilt several times in the last few centuries. As a writer myself, I love to read works that evoke emotions in us: joy, pain, separation, empathy, elation, anger, or just about any feeling that we come across in our daily lives. The author evokes several of our human emotions by cutting across the language and culture barriers, and weaving together the history of the city of Delhi. His insightful first-person accounts and jaunty narrative stays in our minds much after we’ve moved onto another book.
I met Dalrymple for the very first time at the first Kovalam Literary Festival in 2008, by which time I’d read two of his books. A down-to-Earth, approachable author is what I’d call him. He read from his book, Nine Lives, which is one of my favourites. This book, too, to a certain extent is about the lives of people, communities and races. Starting with the taxi driver Balwinder Singh and Dalrymple’s own landlady, Mrs Puri, he paints the picture of the Indian Partition. He brings out the nuances in each character’s life – whether it’s a behavioural pattern or a communal feeling.
His digs at Indian English and its usage is quite a laugh. Visiting Delhi for the second time – first time with wife, though – he travels widely within India and abroad, talking to politicians, poets, princesses, sufis, taxi drivers, clerks, Britons, anglo-Indians, and others, inviting us to be a part of his colourful journey. The conversations with those of the British raj era are interesting, different points of view elaborated nicely.
He and his wife track down several ancient palaces, monuments, bungalows and residences that are now used as governmental offices, revealing their then glorious past. Although the text is history-heavy at times, the seamless flow of storytelling is his masterpiece. Adding to the theme of the various stories are the black and white water colour renderings.