City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple
- 352 pages (including roughly 35 pages of Glossary, etc.)
- Lengthy chapters make this transporting book a good choice for long stretches in the plane, train or bus or a sick day at home
When I first thought about reading more world history, I knew I had to grapple with the huge topic of India’s history. But where to start? India is an entire subcontinent, populated for millennia. One can either plow through some academic type’s 700-page magnum opus, or one can focus more narrowly on a particular time or place. Which brings us to Delhi.
Author William Dalrymple has written a few books about India’s history and culture, so I could have started with any one of them. I liked that this book examined a single region. However, what really makes this book accessible are the colorful descriptions of the characters in Dalrymple’s life during his year in this city. He tells us about his nosy, opinionated landlady and her lecherous husband, the Punjabi cab driver who drives them all over the city, and the Muslim scholar who introduces him to some of the region’s religious practices and ideas.
Not all of the modern characters the author introduces are meant for comic relief. The author tells the stories of others, too, who don’t fit into Delhi society, in spite of its breadth and vibrancy. For example, Dalrymple follows a household of eunuchs for a few days. Rejected by other parts of Indian society, these people live in the worst part of town and make their living basically by being nuisances: they show up en masse at homes with new babies or wedding celebrations, put on a show, and refuse to leave until they are paid enough to make them clear off.
Although the book’s primary value lies in the vivid descriptions of the faiths and cultures Dalrymple experiences directly, I did learn some regional history. For example, I had never heard of Ibn Buttuta prior to reading this book. In the course of his life, he traveled three times the distance covered by Marco Polo, with whom I was of course familiar. Buttuta was a Moroccan who traveled the world, including India, where he attained a high position in the Sultan’s government in Delhi. He remained in that post until his trip to China as the Sultan’s ambassador ended in disaster. Other historical figures feature into Dalrymple’s book, and all arrive there chiefly to explain something about modern Delhi or the ruins one encounters there.
So what are “djinns” and what do they have to do with anything? A djinn is a spirit. Some djinn are mischievous; others are compelled to provide services to those who attain some power over them. The idea of the djinn comes from Islamic tradition, but many in India’s Hindu population have co-opted them, making them familiar figures throughout Delhi. Their roles within two religious traditions have made them an irresistible icon for a book that has at its core a fascination with the spirituality and mysticism of Delhi’s peoples. Although it is not a book about religion, the author could not have written it without some discussion of the Sufi mystics and dervishes, the crowds at the mosques, and Hindu worshippers contemplating sacred rivers.
I nearly didn’t finish this book. I found Dalrymple’s writing style of weaving personal anecdotes among historical episodes disjointed and hard to follow at first. Probably, it had more to do with the way I was trying to make this book fit into my life, reading it in bursts of fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. Until I could assign more time at a stretch to it, the book frustrated me because I could tell I wasn’t getting out of it nearly as much as it had to offer. That said, the author plainly holds the India he has discovered in high regard, only gently poking fun at the modern characters with whom he surrounded himself. Read this book when you can immerse yourself in the topic as thoroughly as the author has.