Dalrymple, William: The City of Djinns

“The City of Djinns” is a travel book about Delhi. The proposer of the book had always been interested in India, partly because of ancestors serving there in the army. As background to the discussion of the book he showed us a century-old album of photographs of Delhi, which we were able to contrast with a modern day album of Delhi photos taken by another member of the group.

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the award-winning “In Xanadu” when he was twenty-two. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching the “City of Djinns”, his second book, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The book therefore ante-dated the recent surge in Indian economic growth. More recently he has published “White Mughals” to critical acclaim. He and his wife now divide their time between London and Delhi.

The majority found this book a beautifully observed and sympathetic portrait of the city, full of fascinating detail and eccentric characters. It proved the pleasure of exploring a limited area in depth rather than a wider area superficially. They liked the relaxed, affectionate, entertaining style, and the wealth of easily assimilated historical detail. It was also amusing (though not really funny in the Bryson manner). Some of his descriptions – we picked out those of rivers as goddesses (echoing Kim), of conversations, and of the death of Norah Nicholson – were particularly effective.

A minority took a different view – they found the style irritating, the view of India and its characters rose-tinted, and the structure lacking in proper background and context.

The structure of the book was unusual. Starting with a range of mildly comic characters whom Dalrymple and his wife met, and occasionally returning to them, the writer would start to delve into the history either of individuals or more commonly of buildings. The different historical layers of Delhi and wider Indian history would emerge, but they would not be recounted in a simple linear fashion : rather, he would circle round stories such as the Mutiny and Partition before covering them in detail. Perhaps he overdid the history somewhat, by the end grinding the reader down with the story of yet another civilization. The book was closer to a history book than a travel book (although all travel books contain an element of history), but was really sui generis.

For most of us, a particularly powerful technique was to find the remnants of the past in the present – whether in the buildings, or in characters washed up by the passage of time, such as Anglo-Indians betrayed by Partition, or someone who had known Lutyens when he worked in Delhi. His search for such living relics of history – such as his search for remaining eunuchs – brought the urgency of the detective adventure to the book. The cumulative effect of this technique was very powerful, revealing the city in four dimensions. For a minority, however, this anecdotal approach was irritating and self-indulgent, particularly if one did not start with any particular knowledge of India and its history.

For the most part, we found the book well-written and his style very easy to read. Some felt he sometimes tried too hard to use Indian imagery in his descriptions of the seasons – to say that the sun was as blonde as clarified butter, for example, was strained and jarring. We did not all find his portraits of local “characters” (as opposed to his historical portraits) satisfactory. Some thought they were unrealistic – for example in using quaint English such as “tip-top”, which Indian students in this country do not use. Those who have visited India, however, felt that this was accurate for the generation of Indians portrayed. A minority felt that the characters – whether Indian or British – were portrayed in a rather patronising way. Another criticism was that nothing of the poverty and disease of India was portrayed, and little said about the untouchables – however, India was a vast subject to deal with.

We moved on finally to a discussion of the wider historical issues raised by the book.

We noted, for example, that the Scots and Irish (there were large numbers in the East India Company) tended to be portrayed more sympathetically – as more open-minded and tolerant towards the Indians – than the English. Was this a bias in the writer? On balance we felt not. He was not anti-English, but was opposed to a certain type of Englishman – evangelical, xenophobic and bigoted. The book showed the British in India in the eighteenth century acting much more generously to native Indians than in the evangelical nineteenth century.

We also discussed whether the writer acknowledged the deaths caused by the British in India, and here most felt he faced up squarely to the issue, notably in relation to the Mutiny. Was the Mutiny the first plea for independence, or just a mutiny? We felt it was the latter, compounded by an unfortunate combination of circumstances and an incompetent military. Finally, it was suggested that Partition, because of the massive population shifts and slaughter that followed, was the greatest disaster of the British Empire.