Monday 10 August 2009

Book Review: William Dalrymple – City of Djinns

This book was sent to my in return for one of the craft packs I sent out a while ago by a very generous sister who took me completely by surprise. William Dalrymple is one of my favourite writers and this book is one I have been wanting to read for ages.

The book details a year in the life of the newly-wed writer and his artist wife Olivia, spent in Delhi. The two take a room in the house of Mr and Mrs Puri, an elderly and eccentric Sikh couple (one a snobbish tightwad, the other half senile and lascivious) and proceed to explore Delhi and get to know the cities diverse and eclectic mix of inhabitants.

The authors enthusiasm for the history of Delhi comes across in the book as does his curiosity about its people. Dalrymple explores the world’s of the “Britisher’s” and Anglo-Indian’s who stayed after partition despite beign treated as outcastes, the secretive Hijrah’s (once powerful palace eunachs), Mughal princesses living in poverty and the nouveau riche Punjabi’s who descended on the city after partition to the disgust of the old-delhi stock. I found each of these fascinating. I learnt so much about the history of Delhi, without actually feeling as if I was sitting in a history lesson. The book has much more the feel of a travelogue, albeit one that jumps between the modern day and various historical periods.

I was captivated by the caste of characters in this book. Dalrymple’s attitude of respect towards people seemed to be enough for people to really open up: the hard-drinking Punjabi taxi driver, the delusional English spinster, the genteel scholar unable to adjust to the modern world, the elderly spinster fallen on hard times and just about everyone else in the city it seems.

My favourite thing about this book was the Englishman-abroad humour. The cultural difference between the Delhi-wallah’s and the Scottish Dalrymple often leads to hilarious results, such as a Sikh friends gift of herbs to help with Olivia’s embarrassing spot problem, which are actually freckles, darkened by the sun. Or this exchange:

"From the middle of October Mr Puri embarked on his winter routine of taking a morning walk around the square below the house. Thought the sqaure was only half the size of a football pitch, getting Mr Puri around it was quite an operation and a new servant was contracted to oversee the business of his daily perambulation. He was a tiny Nepali boy, clearly not a day over eight. I said as much to Mrs Puri.
"He is nineteen" she replied.
"But he is only three and a half feet tall"
"He is Nepali," said Mrs Puri. "Nepali people are small."
"But he has no beard. His voice hasn't broken. He should be at primary school."
Mrs Puri considered this. "They have bad food in Nepal" she explained.
- p.48

The other thing was Dalrymple’s observations and asides about Islam. This is something I can be very sensitive about and I am onto such things like a shot. Dalrymple is usually quite well-informed when it comes to Islam, but I did find a few things that didn’t feel quite right:

“The faithful knelt down and placed their heads on the ground: “La Allah illah Allah, Muhammad Resul-allah!” [authors transliteration] There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Seat of God!” ~ p.252

What we actually believe is: There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God. A small mistake, but on with which leads to essential changes in the meaning of our basic declaration of faith.

“The fast is over,” said Dr Jaffery. “Everyone will be relieved. Although – “ and here he lowered his voice “ – a few of the more pious mullahs will pretend to weep and be unhappy. They will say “Ramadan is the month of blessings. Now the angels will not bless us for another year.” But secretly these people will be happy too. No one likes to fast.” ~p.250

I’m not very pious alas, but I am always sad when Ramadan is over. Do I like to fast? Ask me in a few weeks time.

In any case, I really enjoyed this book. I savoured the wonderful descriptions of places and people and I really enjoyed Dalrymple’s wealth of stories and anecdotes about Delhi (Lahore is still more fun though) and the humour of the book really made me smile.

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