Enchanting Chronicle of Delhi’s History (Book Review: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple)

Written by Dalrymple, during a brief sojourn of eleven months in Delhi with his wife, City of Djinns emerges as a part travelogue, part memoir, past history.



Built on the banks of the Jumna river; the author travels to every nook and corner of the city and brings fore the ghosts of the seven cities of Delhi which has been inhabited and abandoned many times in history, but never destructed.



Constructed from the conversations with the guardians of old traditions and history and a new generation demonstrated by the likes of Mrs. Puri and remnants of ruins, the book keeps moving back and forth the various periods of history to deliver an impression of random chronicling. However, on careful perusal of the structure of the book, it emerges as a deliberate effort on the part of the author and not as random as on the first impression.

delhi collage


Be as it may, the book is an excellent chronicle of a romanticized version of Delhi’s history and at times real, inter-meshed with voices of ghosts past, that enthralled the writer ever since his first stay in the city.

With punctilious observation skills and incredible narration, the author begins the book with the epitome of a new culture of Delhi dominated by Punjabis and moves on to record the long avenues dominated by “white plaster Lutyens bungalows” and again jumps back to Indira Gandhi’s death and consequential anti-Sikh riots.



With masterful stroke of narration, the author weaves the narrative of anti-Sikh violence in the larger context of Delhi’s violent history which is “punctuated with many flashes of terrible, orgiastic violence” despite its reputation as the most cultured town in India.

Thus, setting the tempo, the author moves on to chronicling the partition of India in 1947 and overwhelming flow of refugees and fastens the same with the central paradox of Delhi: despite being “one of the oldest towns in the world, was inhabited by a population most of whose roots in the ancient city soil stretched back over forty years” and explains “…why Delhi, the grandest of grand old dowagers, tended to behave today like a nouveau-riche heiress: all show and vulgarity and conspicuous consumption



Chronicler of Delhi’s past and antiquity, the author records the history of Shahjehanabad, pre-partition culture of old Delhi, its traditions, poets, havelis to building of Lutyens’ New Delhi by British “with all its ostentation and wasteful extravagance”.

The book is replete with shifts between past and present, from celebration of Diwali with Mrs. Puri to the “1857 Indian Mutiny” and Nadir Shah’s massacre. In building a bridge from past to present, the author meets the last generation of Anglo-Indians in India and record their impressions of the British Empire and Delhi, meets Pakeeza Sultan Begum, a direct descendant of the Mughal rulers and records their nostalgia for the old Delhi with all its mannerisms, riches, traditions.



Bringing alive a world of djinns, courtesans, eunuchs, hakims, fakirs, sadhus, Sufis, qawwalis, the festival of Diwali and Id, Mughal Empire in all its glory (Red Fort), rivalries, treacheries (Aurangzeb and Roshanara Begum), souvenirs of the Mughal Empire now lying in ruins and Delhi of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, the book is a living tribute to the city which is older than building of Indraprastha by Pandavas.

In invoking the ghosts of Delhi in its glory and ruins, in seven cities built and destroyed, foundations laid and destructed, empires conquered and lost, travelers passing through the same city much before the author and noting their experiences, the book bewitches the reader with the magic and charm of the old world and the flow of narration certainly helps the reader to devour the book.

Leaving the book open-ended with a promise to return is homage to the city which is ever emerging and whose history cannot be documented and closed at any one point of time in the history.

City of Djinns is a must read for anyone interested in Delhi’s rich history, culture and civilization and is rightly remarked as a “journey into the soul of Delhi” by Charles McKean.

Title: City of Djinns

Author: William Dalrymple

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 352

Genre: Travelogue

Rating: 5/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali, was published in 1998.

William Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and in 2002 was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature’. He wrote and presented the British television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. His Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, recent won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting and was described by the judges as ‘thrilling in its brilliance… near perfect radio.’ He is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now divide their time between London and Delhi. (Courtesy: Amazon)

To quote William Dalyrmple

“India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat, she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them.”

“For all its faults we love this city.’ Then, after a pause, she added: ‘After all, we built it.”

“The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows. It is as fluid and unpredictable in its moods as it has ever been, but it meanders within familiar banks.”

“As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia, Sufi devotions and visits to pirs, as literary and religious ambition replaced the political variety.”

“Whoever has built a new city in Delhi has always lost it: the Pandava brethren, Prithviraj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughluk, Shah Jehan … They all built new cities and they all lost them. We were no exception.”

One thought on “Enchanting Chronicle of Delhi’s History (Book Review: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple)

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews Archive | My Writing Den

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