City of Djinns

There is something odd about rusticating in the Georgia countryside under a hammock and to be reading a book written by a Brit on an Indian city. William Dalrymple is one the finest scholars of the late Mughal era and one can understand his fascination and love affair with Delhi, which he calls The City of Djinns. The book, an account of a year in Delhi, is a fascinating portrait of India's capital city. He writes, "Delhi is a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns".

The book flits back and forth between the past and present as Dalrymple explores the city and uncovers its secrets - the mansions, the eunuchs, Unani medicine, Lutyen's Delhi, etc. Starting with the riots following Indira Gandhi's death in 1984, the book spirals backwards going back further and further in time till it ends with a solitary sadhu on Nimbodh Ghat. For a Brit, Dalrymple doesn't have much sympathy for the British era and his portraits of the Anglo-Indians and Brits who chose to be 'left behind' aren't sensitive but comic. They are a people suspended in an age and time that has long passed. For one particular class of Anglo-Indians he does make an exception and those being the 'White Mughals', notably Col. James Skinner and William Fraser (the ancestor of his wife Victoria Fraser). One can see why these Brits who 'went native' are so fascinating and to do justice he had to write a larger piece of work - The White Mughals. For these class of Brits he is overcome with wistful nostalgia and anguish over history's great missed opportunity. For a brief period the English, Hindu, and Muslim world lived side-by-side in an odd, harmonious marriage before the Revolt of 1857 and Victorian mores destroyed that idea forever.

Delhi doesn't boast the glitz or the financial muscle of Mumbai, and isn't anyone's idea of the cultural capital either. Around partition Delhi was a city where even milkmen and prostitutes could quote Dagh, Mir, and Ghalib. The indigenous poets and artists have long departed. What remains of culture is transplanted from elsewhere. Delhi, for most, is a political circus, where the Parliament meets, the location of the annual Republic Day Parade, and incidentally also the home of the Red Fort. Monuments are really empty if the culture around it has vanished. Dalrymple's central thesis is that the Partition all but killed Delhi's cultural richness that resulted from the mixing of the Hindu and Muslim worlds from the Mughal times. The Partition exodus resulted in the city being overrun by the boorish and loud Punjabis who have no love nor understanding of the city's language or culture. Modern Delhi is divided into two halves - the decaying and dying Mughal Old Delhi and vulgar and conspicuously consumptive Punjabi New Delhi. But as he explores Delhi's past, Dalrymple cannot escape the Punjabis who now run the city and grudgingly he gives them their due. He rents an apartment from the iron-fisted Partition-refugee Mrs. Puri and is driven around by the irrepressible Balwinder Singh from the International Backside Taxi (backside denoting its location behind the International Centre).

The world that he writes about is from the late 1980s (the book was published in 1993) where he had many encounter with the famous Indian bureaucracy, but things have not changed much since at least in terms of preserving history, culture, and architecture. He writes about two brothers from a family of nastaliq calligraphers. One brother continues to preserve the dying art and the other, the more pragmatic of the two, has all but shunned it in favour of taking soft-porn photos in the same premises where his ancestors laboured for princes, omrahs, and scholars. The death and decay continue. Monuments are still uncared for, valuable papers are still rotting in basements, and grotesque improvements and changes are being made in places that are of great historical importance.

In middle of this captivating account, the mid-morning Georgia sun made it presence felt and I had to run indoors for cover. I was halfway across the world but this plot of earth is only 10 degrees north of Delhi and in any case the red earth of Georgia does remind me of the Red Fort.

7 comments:

Anil P said...

I happened to attend the release of his book 'White Mughals' and must say that he is quite something. His 'Age of Kali' makes for wonderful reading.

Ashutosh said...

Great review...it's on my list

? said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
? said...

Chanced upon your blog when I was searching for a book of photos based on this book. Delhi does indeed evoke late-hate feelings from outsiders... ; another city Hyderabad, from the White Mughals is fast losing its charm and buildings to the craze to "catch-up"..

Hirak said...

I think Hyderabad is a fascinating city. It is like a northern city in the South. A mix of a many cultures - the Nawabi, the Andhra.

I wonder when William D. will turn his attention to the this city before all the history crumbles and the houses are lost.

? said...

He did! His White Mughals are based partly in Hyderabad... the city in its frenzied rush towards IT and "progress" has ruthlessly scythed through several historic buildings ..nothing to say about all those beautiful pre-historic rock formations and water bodies the city had. I think most of the beautiful haveli's dotting the city wd have given way to roads, malls and buildings. And yes, it did and still has a certain charm, that is unique to the demographic mix of religions and cultures.

Hirak said...

I have not read the WH. I have wanted to read it. He alludes to that a lot in the City of Djinns.
I did fall in love with the Old Hyderabad. I don't care too much for the new Hyderabad. The buildings and constructions lack any sort of life and it is hard to attach any feeling to them.
When will they start investing in good architects?