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It ain't that easy
on 8 July 2002
Dalrymple set himself an awesome task - to make sense in a mere 250 pages of Delhi, not one city but eight, each superimposed upon the preceding one, each a complex of myriad interlocking mini-cities with their own history and customs. Where do you begin ? How do you give form and structure to such a jumble ? After all, as V.S. Naipaul observed in "India - a million mutinies now", the nation's history only acquired a sense of direction, only became understandable and memorable, once the British arrived and drove India down their peculiar path.
Dalrymple's trick then is to cut back and forth between his year in Delhi and the historical accounts of the visitors and conquerors who have written about Delhi since Ibn Battuta. His prose is vivid, light and absorbing. In form, content and theme he sells the convincing message of Delhi as the place par excellence where history still lives if you know where to look for it.
But there's a price to pay for imposing an order upon Delhi. The result is of necessity contrived. As you read of the deliberation with which Dalrymple made to assemble his colourful characters (the nutty landlord, the Islamic scholar, the eunuchs),you realise that the author was gathering "material" from day one, rather than letting the city speak for itself. In glamourising his hunts for the monumemt's of Delhi's "hidden" past, he somehow neglects to mention that they're all on the standard tourist circuit and you just pay a ticket to go in.
But, most importantly of all, by writing off the post-Independence influx of Punjabi Hindus as an aberration from Delhi Muslim destiny, he managed to be simultaneously offensive and to ignore the current reality of Delhi. Can one imagine how a travel book on London would go down if it treated the city's current multi-cultural cosmopolitan ambience as a regrettable side-track from its 19th century pure English glories ?
In short, if Dalrymple had come clean and written "City of Djinns" as a popular, readable history of pre-Independence Delhi, he'd have succeeded splendidly. By calling this travel writing, he does a severe injustice to the city's current complexity.