Some books have the ability to transport the reader into its world and William Dalrymple's City of Djinns does exactly that. This travel memoir chronicles the one year that Dalrymple and his wife Olivia spent in the great city of Delhi.
Perhaps because we Indians pride on our variety, you find that Dalrymple talks about just too many things. I wouldn't call it information overload, but though written in an easy, very readable style, there is a lot, from Sadhus to Sufis to the Mahabharata to Partition to the Sikh riots to Yunani, that Dalrymple presents in the book which will take some time for the reader to process and savour.
Foreigners writing about India sometimes write to fit the default image of an exotic, poor India with all its history, corruption and superstition. Dalrymple is different because of his obvious love for the people that he meets. His hilarious landlady Mrs.Puri and driver Balwinder Singh are characters that you can never forget and though Dalrymple pokes fun at them and teases them, you know it's never vicious and always done with affection.
Dalrymple's writing is brilliantly descriptive. Which is a pleasure when it comes to describing the people he meets, from the last surviving descendants of the Mughal Dynasty to Ahmed Ali, the wonderfully cynical, tragic author of Twilight in Delhi, who was displaced from the land he loved due to partition. But when Dalrymple describes the architecture of Delhi too closely, it does get repetitive and indeed boring at times.
The political incorrectness of the people he meets, is gloriously refreshing though at times shocking. Dalrymple writes with great self-deprecating humour and is a very quotable writer indeed. Sample this:
'Recently, when a 93-episode adaptation (of the Mahabharata) was shown on Indian television, viewing figures never sank beneath 75 percent and rose to a peak of 95 percent, an audience of some 600 million people. In villages across India, simple Hindu peasants prostrated themselves in front of their village television screens for two hours every Sunday morning. In the towns the streets were deserted; even the beggars seemed to disappear. In Delhi, government meetings had to be rescheduled after one memorable Sunday morning when almost the entire cabinet failed to turn up to an urgent briefing.'
There is always a sense of adventure, as Dalrymple goes about finding so much history in every nook and corner of the city. His wife, the artist Olivia Fraser's wonderful illustrations add to conjuring the charm of Delhi. There are some great anecdotes and colourful, delightful characters in the book and this is as good as non-fiction can get.
Delhi is a city that has seen several empires rise and crumble and has been the home to people of many nationalities and religions. Dalrymple's account does justice to the mystique, grandeur and contradictions of Delhi. His affinity towards writing about the religious side of the city gives excellent results and seems to be the precursor to his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.
This book is a wonderful read for anyone interested in India and qualifies as a great book because of its writer's obvious love for not just the city and its history, but also the people who inhabit it.