On William Dalrymple’s, “The City of Djinns” and My Experience(s) at Nizamuddin

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By Syed Wamick Hussain

The book, “City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi”, which has been magnificently woven by William Dalrymple gives a sigh of bliss, just like his other bestselling books “White Mughals” and “The Last Mughal”. The City of Djinns is his second book and has also been scripted into a play. William Dalrymple has also won the Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, the Vodafone Crossword Award for Non-fiction, the Hemmingway Award and many more. He is currently residing with his wife and children in a farm outside Delhi in Mehrauli.

The book is a very well organized non-fiction, which Dalrymple narrates of his year spent in Delhi in 1991. Though what fascinated me at the very first sight was the name of this book itself. Djinns! What? Are you kidding?

As Dalrymple states:

“Whoever has built a new city in Delhi has always lost it: the Pandava brethren, Prithviraj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughluk, Shah Jehan … They all built new cities and they all lost them. We were no exception.”

Or, as an eminent Urdu poet of 18th century Mir Taqi Mir puts it:

“Delhi alone is a city of love; all those passed through have looted it.”
The author’s tone in the book is not academic or dogmatic. It is rather an adventure that Dalrymple takes us all through with him. “Just open your eyes he says. If you know how to look, even the abandoned ruins of the past are alive.” He goes back forth in time starting with 1984 anti Sikh riots and back to Partitions through Lutyens’ Raj, and East India Company to the golden age of Mughals, Sultanate and at the end prominent Indraprastha of Mahabharatha.

Dalrymple knits the plot by narrating his experiences with the landlord in Delhi, Mrs. and Mr. Puri (refugees of the partition), Balwinder Singh (Sikh taxi driver); maali (gardener), a sweeper and a cook. He tries to feel the signs of the past in present times, mostly around Old Delhi by literally leaving no stone unturned. He walks through the Lodi Gardens in the brutal heat of summer, the musty libraries, and primitive documents and even unveils various historical sites of which most of us are unaware about. The neglected city of Tughlaqabad, deserted house of William Fraser (a British official) and many other sites which still remain absolutely unnoticed are rendered vivid.

Dalrymple also reveals the faith of Sufis like Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (which I’m specifically going to assess in the latter half of my writing), Khwaja Khizr, Moin-ud-din Chisti and their association with the city. As he keeps on going back and forth, the present diversification of cultures, the geographic locations, festivals, marriages, food and all other nuances which are part of our lives have been touched. What remains of the past as of now like the practice of Unani medicine in Old Delhi, bird fights, diminishing calligraphy, flying of kites, the qawalis at Nizamuddin and large gathering at Jama Masjid to offer Eid prayers have also been mentioned.

We also see Dr Jaffery (a specialist on Purani Dilli) and the Haxby Sisters who enlighten us about hapless Anglo Indians. Dalrymple has even tried to show the relations and approaches of British with the natives by depicting Metcalf, Lutyen and Fraser through their conversions and writings.

“Authoritarian regimes tend to leave the most solid souvenirs; art has a strange way of thriving under autocracy. Only the vanity of an Empire- an Empire emancipated from democratic constraints, totally self-confident in its own judgment and still, despite everything, assured of its own superiority-could have produced Lutyens’s Delhi”

Visit to Nizamuddin:
While entering the tomb of the famous Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, I was reminded of the famous words said to the then Sultan of Delhi, Ghiyasuddin Tuglaq, when he was on his way to Delhi to punish the saint; “Hunooz Dilli duur ast”. It translates to “Delhi is still far away”. It’s a popular saying in Delhi that anyone who lives in Delhi, has to pay its rent by paying obeisance to the shrine of the Sufi saint. I paid the rent on my visit. The place had a tunnel-like entrance to it, crowded by beggars asking for alms and shops selling various religious items. The scene was so familiar to me that I didn’t feel I was in some strange place though it was my first visit. Since, we live in difficult times, where you don’t know what might offend someone or the other, I was a bit cautious. What I was greeted with, might not easily have been a scene out of a normal temple or a mosque though. People from any sect, religion, cast creed or gender visit the dargah without any restriction. The aura of spirituality, humility, kindness, simplicity and the usual hustle bustle of a religious centre prevailed. I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort and found myself at ease.

The architecture of the place is brilliant with finely carved jaalis and the magnificent dome towering over everything else just like its resident’s fame. While going through the novel there were two instances which touched me the most. The first was one where it’s mentioned how when we don’t choose sides, others choose for us. I have never chosen sides and don’t want anyone to do that for me as well. So , when I came across the dargah at Nizamuddin, I found a place which had defied categories and sides for over seven hundred years and continues to do so. People from all walks of life were there, fearless, happy and at peace, just like me. The second instance from the novel was the last paragraph where Karsan declares, “this time I must bow”. As a millennial, brought up in an orthodox family while managing modernity and tradition simultaneously, I was well aware of this declaration. The tomb of Nizamuddin was the perfect blend of the same: modernity and tradition, where you could see more young faces than old bowing to the same tomb where emperors like Akbar had bowed, centuries before.

The qawalis I attended have continued since the time of Amir Khusrau, also the resident of the second most important tomb in the campus. While sitting at the Dargah, observing people, pondering over complex ideas like communalism and religious conflicts, I had an epiphany. Throughout history, people have fought each other over religion and gods, and throughout history, oases of religious tranquillity and peace like Nizamuddin have existed and will continue to do so. Just like the Sufi Nur Fazal’s bol, the message might be lost for a while to us, but it will come back at times whenever we’d need it. Communalism and religious conflicts might make us nervous, force us to be extra careful, to notice dress, rituals, and gestures more, but they won’t stop the intermingling of cultures, religions and faiths that has continued since time immemorial.

I conclude with a quote by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib:

“I asked my soul, what is Delhi?” “She replied, the world is the body and Delhi is its heart.”

The author is a student of Social Sciences and Humanities at Ambedkar University Delhi and can be reached at: s.wamick@hotmail.com.