Monday, September 17, 2007

William Dalrymple: City of Djinns

What does this title mean ? Well, the Djinns as referred to in this book are the spirits who cannot be seen, but who are the original inhabitants of the city and have been with the city as it prospered and withered (or was brutally sacked) many times over a period of thousands of years.
Delhi (or New Delhi as we now globally know it as) is the capital of a resurgent India, the epicenter of political and bureaucracy strength in the country. To outsiders, it is a city full of Punjabis, full of people with egos and show-off tendencies, but otherwise very severely restricted in terms of culture. In other respects, it is also a city with many decaying sections (especially its heritage and historical monuments); while at the same time, it is also a city that is like a magnet for outsiders, so rapidly is it growing that its amenities and infrastructure is falling apart.
This book was published in 1993, so it somewhat dated, and cannot be really seen as something like a 'Lonely Planet' kind of guide to the city, but if you want to know about the history of the city, there are very few books that can match this one. And this is not a dry book full of historical facts, it is a book full of humour, with many personal touches given by the author describing his struggles with the bureaucracy as well as the constant struggle that he makes in order to obtain the information that he seeks. It is quite true, it is only a committed seeker of information (or material for a book) who would do all the searching that the author has done.
The book initially itself divides Delhi into 2 parts, where one is the new part, capturing the essence of Punjabi culture brought in by the settling of Punjabi refugees from Pakistan into the city on a mass scale (in fact, large sections of the city are former refugee colonies); and the old part of the city (Old Delhi), representing the history and heritage of the city (although in massive decline with decay and no ability to manage the upkeep of many of these structures or prevent them from being trampled under). These are 2 almost independent sections with little inter-action. A vocal section that represents the old Mughal cultural tradition of the city is actually outside India, with many of them moving over to Pakistan at the time of partition; yet carrying the memories of Delhi with them. And of course, the current two sections of the city do not exactly love each other, with the Punjabi culture being seen as brash and arrogant (primarily being seen as uncultured) while the Old Delhi culture is seen as old, degenerate, living in the past and crying over things long gone.
The history of Delhi is replete with many "Delhi's" being built and destroyed; classical lore has it that the Delhi of today is the 8th in line, with 7 earlier Delhi's having come into existence and then replaced by a newer Delhi (each time bearing a vision of their creator).
What the author has done has has to start with the present (represented by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 - one of the most recent shameful episodes of modern India), and then almost peel off the layers of the city one by one. In the course of these, you get to hear from people who you would not known have existed, the remaining Anglo-Indian community, the community of Eunuchs who once commanded great power in the harems of the emperor and are now living the life of outcasts (you even get to know the history of how does a person land up with the eunuchs). You get to get a second-hand visual of the ancient sport of cock-fighting. And what is Delhi without its various religious festivals, so you get a glimpse of all of them through the eyes and words of the author. I could go on and on describing what the author has written about, but you really should read the book by yourself.
Of course, you might find out about the things that you never knew about, the bloody part about Delhi; the mass killings during and after the First War of Independence, as well as the mass slaughters prescribed by victorious rulers. You might also get to know some facts about some of the city's prominent figures of the past (rulers, architects, etc) that you never knew.

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