Can an average random reader judge historical non-fiction by an eminent historian? That’s the first of few anxieties that cropped up in my mind while thinking about how best to review City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. As a travelogue, it is by far the most interesting one I have read since I can marginally see through the evidence, not that I can deconstruct it any better. If however, one reads it as a chronicle of the author’s counter-argument with the city’s history itself, I am at best a novice audience without tools or intelligence at her disposal to critique it on its academic or literary merit. Yet here I am, sharing a piece of my struggle to collect words, perspectives even my cluelessness to close yet another book that I deeply enjoyed. In the collective lack of a single protagonist, a plot, or simply an ambition, a reader can’t help but treat a book dwelled in the author’s expertise of treating and handling historical jewels, in its entirety. It is absolutely essentially the same feature that persuades me to ignore the standards of a typical book review and rather treat this piece as an artifice that makes City of Djinns more than just a historian’s travelogue.
On the face of it, City of Djinns is an entertaining account of Dalrymple’s interactions with Delhi and its people that are no less eccentric than fictional characters. His taxi driver, landlord, Imams of purani-Dilli, Sarkari babus, aloof & regretful Anglo-Indians, barely surviving Naach communities, have all been presented in their peculiar misery or inner bounty, sometimes both. Simpleton Delhiites are shown to be open about their wounds and proud of their prejudices towards each other. The historian exercises humor and irony to paint the dismal state of Delhi’s architectural inheritance. Candid writing allows readers to see and feel the city for themselves without having to hear the dominating voice of a historian too often. Although his wits at times, seem to casualize the misery of the city’s heritage, the portrait itself is neither undeserved nor uncalled for. Decay, whether of monuments or traditions or culture, prominently recurs as the common denominator demarcating Delhi’s multiple parallel geo-cultural identities on the time-shelf of a modern city. The book maintains its hold throughout as Dalrymple is interestingly unpredictable in leading the readers with his (historical) objects of affection; a tactical approach to keep the reader hooked with stories that have been measured up, if not exactly told before. City of Djinns tells the journey of becoming of Delhi surviving bloodshed, migration, and modernization while absorbing generations that are dead, alive, or forgotten today.
Before I conclude this article, I must say, my reasons to recommend this book are rather intellectually luxurious. They need a bit of imagination beyond the basic vanilla curiosity. Truly and technically, City of Djinns is not a standard history book. It doesn’t intend to carve newer truths or glorify the old ones. But one thing that it does absolutely and remarkably well, and in some cases even better than a traditional history book, is that it enables one to see, observe and treat history outside of a history book. To grasp the width of the leap in my proposition, intuitively, of course, it is almost essential that either one must have had felt a certain affliction for history or had a tasteful experience originating out of a classroom owing to a natural storyteller. (I have had both!). Also, I would implore you to look at the dimensional or directional relationship of the content-in-question with the reader.
‘Linear’, ‘dead’ and ‘eventual’ are some of the words that usually define an average person’s perception of what it means to be historical.
It is only stupid to argue that history or the study of it can be pursued non-chronologically or its linearity can be diffused, for history is inherently eventual in nature and pours downwards like time. While studying history, the reader is positioned to be at the other end of the instruction. His faculties are conditioned to recognize the markers (events, circumstances, episodes…) shaping the very record he is studying. His knowledge by default becomes selectively virtuous, designed to identify history with typical elements. Most of them are either too pompous to-not-to-notice including, heritage monuments, museums filled with weapons and ornaments, archaeological sites, or too fragile to be breathing the last gulp of the present. However, City of Djinns brings an interesting element into play right here. The travelogue in its being takes the reader to travel the huge gulf between the two extremes. The leap allows the reader to look around and see everything at once. In that gulf are laid the unusual remnants of Delhi’s history in and as people, communities, traditions, art, academies ad whatnot. A civil park encroached by dwellers today offers a high chair on which William Dalrymple sits and surrealistically conjures the glamour of its prominence in the Mughal era and with it the argument of how or what to see in a city or what is a city to its people and vice-versa. The reader is right there on the bench and suddenly history is no more linear or one-dimensional. The reader is not at the end of it. He is in it! It is in that leap and visionary work of a historian that the reader can collect bits and pieces of Delhi’s history and see the bigger picture.
City of Djinns is not an academic book in its literary sense. Instead, it is drawn out as a straight arrow shooting right into the heart of the philosophy of history. The rhetoric from here on is the reader’s own, in what he wants to see!