Review: City of Djinns; a Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple (1993) Assessment 10 out 10

Djinns are spirits, representng pagan beliefs, which were integrated into Islam. The name was anglicised as genie.

This is a wonderful book by a wonderful writer. Dalrymple lived in Delhi, with his young wife, the artist Olivia Fraser, who provided the book’s numerous sketches. Some passages are very funny covering their relationships, including with their rascally Sikh driver and dominant landlady and her fading husband. There are ludicrous encounters with bureaucracy.

Dalrymple both renews the genre of Travel Books and tells the story of Delhi, delving into its past through an exploration of its literature and the layers of its architecture, showing that there wasn’t just one Delhi but many. Indeed since he was there, it has become another Delhi, now perhaps the most polluted city in the world.

 He continues to remove layers and dig, going down as far as the writing of the Mahabharata between the 3rd Century BCE and the 3rd of the CE. In its longest version it is ten times the length of the Iliad and Odysseus combined. Like them it describes events, which, if they happened, were older than that, the Mahabharata dating back possibly to the 8th or 9th centuries BCE. Wandering story tellers could recite the whole epic, an amazing accomplishment. In the 1980s they were superceded by Indian TV, which showed it in 98 episodes each 45 minutes long.

Dalrymple encounters those who write of Delhi’s past and those whose story forms part of that past. He meets unlikeable sisters, who stayed on after the end of the Raj and an archaeologist, who researched the India when the events described in the Mahabharata occurred. He penetrates a group of hijra, in the closet world of South Asian eunuchs. He describes Sufi worshipers, Islamic mystics. He flies to Karachi to speak to Ahmed Ali who wrote “Twilight in Delhi”, about the final days of Muslim Delhi. On Partition, living in China, Ali was unable to return to Delhi and instead forced (apparently unwillingly) to move to Pakistan.

He visits a craftsman continuing his family skill of calligraphy, after the demand has ceased. He spends time with a literary authority in Urdu and Persian, the language of the Mughal court.

One thought on “Review: City of Djinns; a Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple (1993) Assessment 10 out 10

  1. Hi there I can’t get the link to your comments page- doesn’t seem to be working. But thanks for this. I love Delhi. (Not New Delhi). The filth, grandeur, massive mix of humanity; a street where avid readers can buy books by the yard (feet or inches)… regardless of title or subject..the juxtaposition of temples and mosques (well, one large and the rest v small). The effect of partition was so telling I had to read up further and head to Shimla to see how the official story line played out. There I met a lady whose family were tailors to the British in India (pre independence) and moved their centre of operations to Shimla as the British Administration moved up there each year.

    Thanks Liz

    Sent from my iPhone



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