Delhi Deciphered

Hindus believe that all rivers, irrespective of their beauty or cleanliness, deserve special homage as givers of life and fertility. They are the veins of Mother Earth, just as the mountains are her muscles and the forests are her long and lovely tresses. The red sediment carried from the hills during the monsoon is the Mother Earth’s menstrual flow. The Jamuna, one of India’s seven most sacred rivers, is no exception. She is the daughter of the Sun and the sister of Yama, God of Death. Once, under the influence of alcohol, Balaram the brother of Krishna attempted to rape her; when she resisted the divine drunkard tied her to his plough and dragged her across North India – irrigating the plains of Doab as he did so. Finally he dumped her into the Ganges near Allahabad.

In the Golden Age of the Guptas (fifth and sixth century AD) when it became common for statues of the two sisters, Ganga and Jamuna, to be placed at the doors of temples, Jamuna was depicted as a beautiful Dravidian girl with a delicately curved, almost Semitic nose and thick, curly hair….

… Ganga stands on a crocodile and looks like a lovely long Punjabi girl: she is tall and thin and her long tresses are tied into a plait. Jamuna, who stands on a tortoise, is unmistakeably a Tamil – she has huge sensuous lips, tight, curly locks and a diaphanous bodice, which barely succeeds in enclosing her enormous breasts.

-William Dalrymple, City of Djinns

I normally never dog-ear my books. I am fanatic about keeping my books in impeccable condition. So much so that when I read them, I first cover them with paper so as to not soil them with grease or dirt while handling my precious books. Fanatic, I told you.

By the time I completed reading City of Djinns during early 2005, I had marked out a dozen pages with elaborate dog-ears. I relished it. Unknown or lesser stories from our mythology unravel in this lovely piece of prose. There is fact and fiction. There is history and geography. There is a story. How did Dalrymple bring out all these elements while making sure that the reader is not baffled? I am yet to learn that trick.

In City of Djinns, Dalrymple describes a year that he spent in Delhi. It is, in reality, a book that has collated a series of his experience of four years that he spent living in the city. I will complete seven years in Delhi this April. But I failed to see all that he saw in just four years. As the book’s blurb reads, “Over the course of a year he comes to know the bewildering city intimately, and brilliantly conveys its magical nature, peeling back successive layers of history, and interlacing innumerable stories from Delhi’s past and present.”

This book is my personal favorite among all the other Dalrymple books. I found White Mughals a little too academic/lengthy (The book’s size can make Vikram Seth sweat). This is one of the few non-fiction books that I got to the end in the shortest span of time. (The other one was Cosmos by Carl Sagan) Age of Kali still waits, unread, on my book shelf. 

From his official website:

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. 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.He is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now divide their time between London and Delhi.



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