No. 16: “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple
Travel Blog • Terry Ward • 05.16.06 | 10:26 AM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: India
An intrepid Scotsman who undertook the adventures chronicled in his first book, “In Xanadu,” at the tender age of 22, William Dalrymple spent a year in Delhi to research City of Djinns. He and his wife, Olivia, set themselves up in a small flat near the Sufi village of Nizamuddin. The common characters who enter their lives—from an opinionated Sikh taxi driver to their frugal and frenetic landlord—are as carefully revealed as the eunuchs and dervishes Dalrymple meets. All prove inextricable from the city’s diverse fabric. The djinns—“like us in all things, but fashioned from fire,” spirits invisible to the naked eye and only seen during times of fasting and prayer—seem as elusive as the richly layered city itself in the end. Dalrymple’s informative historical narrative, carrying the reader from Delhi’s Muslim and Hindu roots to partition, never becomes dull or droning. It’s one man’s impression of one of the planet’s most fascinating cities. For those who love travel for travel’s sake and travel writing for the vicarious ride it can deliver, “City of Djinns” is a classic.
Excerpt from City of Djinns:
All the different ages of man were represented in the people of the city. Different millennia co-existed side by side. Minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust. But it was not until months later, when I met Pir Sadr-ud-Din, that I learned the secret that kept returning to new life. Delhi, said Pir Sadr-ud-Din, was a city of djinns. Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt; each time it rose like a phoenix from the fire. Just as Hindus believe that a body will be reincarnated over and over again until it becomes perfect, so it seemed Delhi was destined to appear in a new incarnation century after century. The reason for this, said Sadr-ud-Din, was that the djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted. To this day every house, every street corner was haunted by them. You could not see them, said Sadr-ud-Din, but if you concentrated you would be able to feel them: to hear their whisperings, or even if you were lucky, to sense their warm breath on your face.
For more about William Dalrymple, see his Wikipedia page.
—Terry Ward is a contributing editor to World Hum. Her last story for the site was France, Interrupted.