City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi - William Dalrymple - Book Review
William Dalrymple is a busy man.
Alongside others, he masterminded and now directs the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is held annually in the Pink City and attracts such literary Gods and Godesses as V. S. Naipaul and next year, Margaret Atwood!
I first discovered his writing and work when I moved to Delhi some years ago, when my mother gave me his second book, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. As an homage to both moving back to Delhi and returning to the Lit Fest, I have jotted down some of my favourite bits of my first Dalrymple discovery.
William Dalrymple’s portrait of Delhi through the ages is a marvellous construct spanning over five hundred years of history, and is a must read for anyone planning to spend time in this city.
Delhi is a city about which many are disdainful. It is accused of being too shallow, perhaps on account of its extensive and rapid growth, blisteringly hot in the summer, too cold, foggy and bleak in the winter, unable to fix its conservative patriarchal attitudes and often, just too damn big! However, Dalrymple’s perfectly formed snippets of the past and his insight into the stories of ‘the sights’, some of which are located just a stone's throw from my home, have thrown some light upon and even glamourised otherwise rather dry, dusty ruins. Dalrymple’s accounts are conducted without a time frame; he loops back and forth, linking present and past seamlessly, facillitating such a clear insight into exactly what makes this seething metropolis tick.
In his anecdote of the tunnels beneath the Yamuna he laments what he describes as the Indian mentality of constantly driving forward resulting in the loss of precious history; the trust responsible for this hidden network have no interest in exploring what could be the world’s first and most expansive series of underground passageways. This is something I now cannot fail to notice on a daily basis in Delhi: stunning, centuries old buildings flanked by glass and concrete monstrosities. I seem to constantly reiterate this dichotomy between the modern and the ancient, but it is something which I do in fact rather relish; it is truly the sign of a fast-growing and developing city.
Not only does Dalrymple delve into Delhi’s rich history, he also accurately and hilariously conveys the modern city and its characters. From Balvinder Singh, Dalrymple’s faithful and spirited taxi driver, of International Backside Taxis Co. we regard mixed principles: twice weekly he offers to drive Dalrymple to GB Road, the red light district of Delhi, “Just looking”, he suggests, “Delhi ladies very good, having breasts like mangoes”. Above this however, he believes in hard work and remains perplexed by roadside beggars: "Why these peoples not working? They have two arms and two legs, they are not handicrafted”.
"Missing one leg perhaps, or only one ear."
"You mean handicapped?"
To which Balvinder Singh proudly replies: “Yes, Handicrafted. Sikh peoples not like this. Sikh peoples working hard, earning money, buying car”.
He tells of the ambitious mindset of the Delhi Wallah in the mechanism of his landlady, Mrs Puri who believes that “Sleep is silver, but money is Gold”, and scrimps and saves by denying heating and air conditioning luxuries to Dalrymple and his wife, all to familiar to me, having battled with landlords in India's capital.
In the amusing incident at Indian immigration when he returns from Pakistan, Dalrymple succinctly and hilariously recounts the struggles with beauraucracy that can be so infuriating yet entertaining here. He leaves India for a brief spell in Karachi and is caught out by an Officer who announces that he must carry with him the items that he originally imported, amongst them a kettle, a computer. Eventually, Dalrymple strikes a deal (there is always scope for a deal in India) and arranges for Mr Prakash Jat, Officer in charge to hold them as surety for his return. On handing over his receipt once back in Delhi, Mr Jat states: “I am very much liking your (reads from label) Discoblast Casette recorder with Anti-Woof and Flutter Function”. Dalrymple continues, “Mr Jat gave my casette recorder a loving caress, held it in his hands and admired its sleek lines and sturdy build. Then, casting a shady look on either side, he added in a lowered voice: “Sahib, you are wanting to sell? I give you good price”.
This is a book about which I could rave on and on, and my dedication would probably end in a stream of quotes, thus instead, I implore you, read City of Djins: A Year in Delhi as soon as you possibly can!