Trying to plan a yearly international trip, always to a different place, can be a pain, especially when you haven’t been to that many places yet, and your finances are still limited to a certain amount. Give me a choice of where to go and I can rattle off places instantly– Galapagos, New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt, the Odysseus tour, Vienna, Prague–but ask me to stay within budget…that’s a problem. It’s December, and we’re still wondering where this next year will take us. For a time I was pushing India, and this was the reason why I picked up William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns.
Americans have little knowledge of India (well, to be frank, Americans have little knowledge of any foreign country, but that’s an entirely different discussion), but I was surprised to find out from Dalrymple that the British don’t know much about the country either. To be sure, they know more about it than the Americans, but as former rulers of this place, they have lost almost all sense of where and what, at least according to Dalrymple. He says that this isn’t entirely the fault of the British–after the bloodless revolution that led to the Indians gaining their independence, they have done their best to wipe clean the legacy of the British in their country, just as they have for every other invader/occupier over their long history. Dalrymple illustrates this by delving into the history of their most famous city, Delhi.
City of Djinns is ostensibly a travel book, but it is of the type that I prefer–rather than just a quick jaunt through the country and back again, Dalrymple and his artist-wife spent a year in Delhi. He worked as a correspondent for a London newspaper, but all the while gathered material for this book. His youth (mid-20s at the time) and enthusiasm for the country is evident in the way that he undertakes to meet all aspects of the city, from the new India of landlords, cab-drivers and industrialists to the old Delhi of hand-calligraphed documents and the shunned Hijras. During the year he attends a wedding, a cock fight, a pilgrimage of dervishes, and a funeral.
The blurbs on the book make it out to be a humorous travelogue, but it is the dry sort of humor that only the British favor, and nothing like the gonzo work of Redmond O’Hanlon or Tim Cahill, or even the wry wit of Eric Newby or Peter Mayle. Dalrymple is, however, an excellent historian, and this is as interesting an introduction to the life of Delhi as you will be likely to find.
[Finished November 1996]