Friday, May 14, 2010

City of Djinns - William Dalrymple

Rating: 8/10


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. 


Tanu said...

This book has been part of my TBR list for such a long time, that I had forgotten about it. Your review reminded me that I have to read this book.

Great Review!!

Btw..have you read Shantaram?

Birdie said...

This sounds amazing! I need to brush up on my Indian history a bit before I tackle a book like this, but it's definitely going on my TBR list.
I cracked up at the Mahabharata bit. It pleases me to think that cabinet members would skip meetings for a televised version of an age-old piece of literature. \o/ Score one for lit!

Vaishnavi said...

I love travel memoirs and definitely going to buy this one for myself! Thanks for the great review! :) I love the quotes you provide in your reviews!

Priya Iyer said...

i have heard a lot about dalrymple, but have never read him. i am newly developing an interest in books about india - and this does sound like a must-read. will try to pick it up sometime.

'There is always a sense of adventure, as Dalrymple goes about finding so much history in every nook and corner of the city." - i would LOVE to travel like that. Those are the lines that make me want to pick up a Dalrymple book ASAP. thanks for a beautiful review!

FYI, a friend recently told me that she loved In Xanadu - another travelogue by Dalrymple. you might want to try it out?

though the size of the book puts me off at times, I have begun to read shantaram. too early into the book to comment,but as of now, it seems very much like this book - a foreigner's perspective of India. And I'm liking it so far :)

PS: sorry for the rather long comment. couldn't help it!

Kals said...

Tanu - Thanks! Get reading it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did :) No..I haven't read Shantaram yet and I must say the very size of the book has intimidated me sort of!

Birdie - Thanks and I totally agree! That bit about the Mahabharata is one of my favourite quotes from the book. It's very well-written and presents many sides of Delhi and indeed India :D

Vaishnavi - Thanks so much :) With this book, it was easy to pick a great quote because there were just so many of them ^_^

Priya - Don't mind about the long comment at all. I love it when I can discuss more :)

Dalrymple is a great writer. I enjoyed his The Last Mughal too and this book is great. He mixes history and adventure and humour so very well without seeming pretentious!

I've heard a lot about In Xanadu and would love to read it some time soon :) Shantaram has had some mixed reviews and yeah, its size has made me hesitant towards it. But I'd love to read what you think of it and maybe decide if I'd read it!

Joanne said...

I think you should add books by M. M. Kaye to your reading list if you love India! She's a great storyteller.

Thank you for this interesting review.

Kals said...

Joanne - I've heard a lot about M.M.Kaye and The Far Pavilions has been on my to-read list for ages now. I hope to get to it soon :)

Birdy said...

I have been wondering whether to really pick up Dalrymple's books and I think this review has now given me a fair idea... At least I will give this one a shot! :)

Kals said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy reading it :)


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