Monday, December 8, 2008

City of Ghosts

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View of Delhi from a Minaret of the Jamma Masjid.

City of Djinns
William Dalrymple
(1994)

A young historian and his wife leave their Scottish home to live in Delhi for a year in the 1980s. The book is part travel-log, part historical narrative of a city with multiple, fractured pasts and a peculiar populous.

Dalrymple takes us deep into the courts of the Moghul emperors; particularly the succession struggle between Aurangzeb and his brothers - brought on by the faltering health of their father, Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame). It is this conflict, of familial betrayal and fratricide, that set off the slow decline into tyranny that eventually felled the once mighty Muslim empire.

Other accounts are of eunuchs, Anglo-Indians, the heat (all-encompassing) and forays into archaeology. The most lasting image is of a pre-British Old Delhi, bedecked in jewels and flowing with water features; a city so cultured, it was said that even the prostitutes could sing in Urdu verse.

The book is hampered by its inability to pass judgement - merely conveying the quirks of characters and dynasties rather than elaborating on some brutal historical episodes. As a result, the effects of Islamic dominance on India's national self-understanding are left underexplored.

However, in its totality, City of Djinns is a fascinating book and any visitor to India should have it on their reading list.

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Photograph by David Ansara

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