The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – William Dalrymple (2003)

This was one of the biggest surprises to me as I had entered the book thinking it was going to be Raj-infused look at Delhi over the past hundred years or so. Surprise (in a good way): it’s actually goes back hundreds of year to the Mughal empire and even the Mongols (who invaded the Mughals which, due to the word play, makes me smile).

So, I actually ended up learning tons more than I had anticipated when I picked up this very readable historical travelogue. Dalrymple wrote it when he (and his wife) had been living in Delhi for about seven years, so it’s not tinged with the novelty of the place (as some Western-authored memoirs can be). This has a patina of experience to it, of acceptance of “it is what it is”. Dalrymple is also a well-read historian of the lengthy history of this remarkable city, and having lived there, has managed to delve into the lesser known parts of its story.

But this historical travel book is not hard to read – au contraire, it’s very readable as Dalrymple employs a lovely dry wit as he observes life in the city. He might hear of some small snippet of Delhi history, and get curious and then spend hours in the Delhi library further researching it, and then go off and find a Delhi historian who would actually take him to the very site where this event occurred. Dalrymple (and his wife) also committed to learning Hindu which helped break down any barriers between himself and the residents.

Covering almost everything from a small band of eunuchs to the pigeon racing fans to the old and rather sad Raj people who stayed behind when India was Partitioned back in the 1940’s and since then, have rather slipped between the cracks with neither England nor India wanting or accepting them, it’s a fascinating cross-section of an ancient city.

It’s a bit heavy in some of the history, and as the book went back further and further in time, back to the Indian legends at the beginning, I kinda glazed over that, but the more recent history was fascinating. I learned so much about before the Raj and about the history of Delhi. It’s called the City of Seven Cities as it has been built, knocked down and remade seven times as various men have come into power through lots of political and familial machinations which would make the Borgia family weep – Incest! Traitorship! Sibling rivalry! Beheading! Pulled apart by elephants! Pushed into wells alive and left to die!…

Dalrymple also brings some of the local characters into the story as well, so it’s not all dry history. He frequently uses a grumpy but very funny taxi driver to transport him to various places, and he makes a good friendship with a local historian, and his landlady is hilarious, although rather unintentionally.

The book also sorted out for me the various religions that are more common in India, and the history between them, so now I have a bit more of an idea about who believes what and when in which religion. I also have a much clearer understanding of the Pakistan/India rift, and can’t imagine why England thought it was a good idea at the time (or ever, really). Masses of people forcibly relocated to places they didn’t want to go, mostly based on religion. Crazy.

Oh, and the Djinns are spirit beings who inhabit the city and have been there since time immemorial.

So – overall, a very very good book that taught me a lot about a country that I probably will not visit, but still find fascinating. It was also an extra bonus that the author took me much farther back, historically speaking, that I had anticipated. I will definitely be reading another one of his books at some time.

William Dalrymple’s website:


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