There is more than just one relationship one can have with a book. What one takes away from a book is noteworthy and much discussed, but what one brings to a book is far less acknowledged. More often than not, one approaches a book with expectations; to be enchanted, enthralled, entertained, emancipated and even educated. What I brought to City of Djinns when I first picked it up was a huge fascination of Delhi.
I’m not a history buff. In fact, apart from being overtly curious about the Second World War, I don’t ever remember giving my history textbook a second look. However, even a history agnost would find himself/herself drawn by Delhi and into the realms of the times that once existed. It is almost impossible to return from Delhi untouched by the grandeur that the city is. In Delhi, history stares at you in the face; you don’t have to go looking for it. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Delhi is a living history textbook; a prettier one at that. So, it is not surprising that William Dalrymple’s second book—an account of his year in Delhi—is a book full of rich, untold stories from the capital. First published in 1993 in UK and in 2004 in India, City of Djinns is nothing short of a wonder book. Although the writing isn’t as passionate as one hopes it would be given how fascinating the stories are, one can ignore that little misgiving. What you might bring to this book would be ignorance. What you take away from it is sheer enlightenment.
Hitching onto the narrative might take a while, but the ride is surely worth it. Dalrymple takes you into areas that you might have seen, but never really ‘known’. In the prologue, Dalrymple writes about Delhi,
…the city…possessed a bottomless seam of stories: takes receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend…
and he goes on, through the length of the book, to justify those words. He brings you to tales that challenge your scientific instincts. He unearths lives that buried under the scorching heat, dust and the multiple garbs of time. He draws portraits of kings who lived and of dynasties that died. He goes knocking on conspicuous doors to find forgotten legends waiting to be told behind them. In short, Dalrymple brings Delhi alive in places that one has seen or heard of but never explored beneath the surface.
Particular narratives that stayed with me include the life-alteration of William Fraser during his stay in India, the attack on the Sikh community following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the degradation of the eunuchs from a respected section to a shunned unit, Shah Jahan and the equation with his children, the expanse of Hastinapur, the Sufis, and, of course, the djinns and their existence in this world. What particularly stands out is that Dalrymple doesn’t write this book as a foreigner. His allusions and descriptions are very much desi. His conversations with the locals are touching as they come across as narratives from a generation gone by.
While the history of Delhi is traced by Dalrymple, one can see how two major faiths of Hindustan are married together in time. It is remarkable how Delhi has so fondly been home to both Islam and Hinduism. In spite of all the wars where one wanted to oust the other, each religion has left behind an abundant legacy in the city thus making it what it is today. Both religions have amalgamated into one another in such a way that no one can take them apart. Be it Shah Jahan’s magnificent architecture or the expanse of Hastinapur on the very land where those structures now lie, Delhi is the granite of Islam and Hinduism. Granite that has formed due to the careful and calm sedimentation over the ages.
I particularly liked a story in the book. About a dervish named Khwaja Khizr, Dalrymple writes:
Other authorities are more specific; they said that Khizr was the great grandson of Shem son of Noah, that he was immortal and that his body was miraculously renewed every five years… He was always dressed in green and was called Khizr (Arabic for Green) because wherever he knelt and prayed the soil instantly became covered with thick vegetation. He was still alive…and a wandered over the earth… Sometimes he travelled by a river, balanced on a large fish…
He then says,
Khwaja Khizr’s fame spread…to the Hindus of the North India who quickly realized that Khizr was really an incarnation of Vishnu. In the Punjab the Green One used to be worshipped as a river god and in many temples he was depicted sailing down the Indus on the back of a large fish.
This story made me smile. One more story about religion as narrated by Rumi is given in the book. The simplicity and ingenuity of the story is enlightenment in itself. These and many more fascinating tales are found in the City of Djinns. The tales of the djinns comes a little late in the narrative, but by then your mind has been so amazed that you believe it all the same. If all that could exist, why not this, you ask.
City of Djinns is a beautiful book on what, in my opinion, is one of the greatest story-telling cities in the world. In this book, history shines, and how!