Note: This is guest post day amongst the Every-Day-in-May Bloggers. I was fortunate to swap with Sue Dickman and you kind find me over at A Life Divided, talking about Greece and a cookbook.
Destination: Delhi, India
Book: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple
I’m usually to be found over at A Life Divided, where I write mostly about food and gardening and travel to India. But I’m delighted to be here today, thinking about books and travel (two of my favorite things). There are many books about India I can recommend, but when I was thinking about books and place, I automatically thought of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (1993), the book I tell everyone spending any time at all in Delhi to read.
Delhi is not an easy city to love. It’s huge and sprawling, crowded, polluted, intense. Most travelers to India get out of Delhi as quickly as possible. I didn’t, though. The first time I was in India in 1989-90, I stayed on and off for six months, and when I returned a few years later on a Fulbright, Delhi was my base. Even then, when I was settled into an apartment in a residential neighborhood of south Delhi, I still couldn’t say I liked it. I was worn down by the crowds, the haggling, the leers, the crazy traffic, the dirt. By the time I left, though, the city had grown on me, and now whenever I return, I’m happy to be there. It’s partly that my knowledge of the city is hard earned—I still remember the triumph I felt the day I realized that I’d forgotten my map, and it was okay—and partly that the city’s charms have revealed themselves to me over the years.
Delhi is a layered city, if nothing else, and these layers—of history, of people, of empires—are ever present. There are the obvious tourist monuments—the Red Fort in Old Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb in Nizamuddin, Lodi Gardens, which, in addition to being the site of a number of the tombs of the Lodi dynasty’s rulers, is one of Delhi’s premier picnic spots. (I wrote more about that in an article for the Christian Science Monitor. But there are also many less obvious monuments to be stumbled across, signs that the city has a long history and that each new wave of occupants has left things behind. Delhi remains the only place I’ve lived where I’ve found myself at a historical monument while getting lost en route to the dry cleaners.
William Dalrymple knows this better than many, and writes about it better than almost anyone else. Dalrymple has lived in Delhi on and off for years, working as a correspondent for various British newspapers and researching his numerous books. (He’s written six in all, the first published when he was 22, with a seventh out this year.) City of Djinns, Dalrymple’s second book, emerged from his stay in Delhi in the late 1980s, and it’s a combined travelogue and history, with memoir binding it all together.
Dalrymple is a fluid and funny writer, and what I love about this book is that the Delhi that was familiar to me—his conversations with his landlord, the everyday of getting around—was woven in with a Delhi that was unfamiliar. The book circles back to the city and its people over hundreds of years, starting with recent history—the massacres of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984—and moving back in time—to partition in 1947, to the height of the British Raj, and back even further to the Mughal era and beyond. He unpacks the past in such a way that the city’s history becomes alive and tangible. With Dalrymple’s guidance, Delhi becomes a city you don’t want to leave quickly anymore, one where you want to stay and learn what else might be revealed. On his first visit, Dalrymple describes Delhi as “full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.” By the end of his book, it is all that and much, much more, a city of living history, rebuilt over and over, a city ever evolving while still holding on to its past.
On behalf of the readers of A Traveler’s Library, I thank Sue Dickman for this lovely piece about Delhi India and her beautiful photographs. Sue will check back in and answer any questions you may have about India, and particularly about Delhi and Dalyrmple’s tempting book.