Friday, May 11, 2007

Against the City of Djinns

This was published earlier this week in Delhi City Limits. It's not online on the Outlook site yet, so read it here!

The theatrical adaptation, currently playing in Delhi, made me, in New York, return to the book. This is how William Dalrymple's, 'City of Djinns' begins – 'It was in the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla that... Pir Sadr-ud-din... sat me down on a carpet and told me about the djinns.'

Thus begins a book which over the past decade or so has become the definitive account of Delhi, a book read by visitors and Dilli-wallahs alike, a book which has since inspired a photo-exhibition, now a play, and innumerable cocktail conversations. But I find myself increasingly puzzled. For though the book begins with Feroz Shah Kotla, it never mentions it again. Which is sort of shocking, given the book's title. The Pir and his carpet are long gone, but every Thursday, there are thousands of people thronging these ruins, and depositing letters in the many alcoves and crevices, letters addressed to jinns.

Why would this most strange and relevant phenomenon be absent in a book which begins at Firoz Shah Kotla and has jinns as a thematic? In answer, let us begin to see what the narrative would look like if these letters had been written about. If while talking about the jinns that haunt and love Delhi, Dalrymple had also talked about the petitions addressed to them, petitions which form an archive of the disquiet of the city - loveless marriages, alcoholism, smack addiction, disease uncured, love unrequited, loans unpaid, work unfinished?

As soon as the letters enter the narrative, it becomes very hard to romanticize the city, to think of it as one 'whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic'. We are forced to ask, why do people write these letters? Since when have they been doing this? What do they have to do with the vanished Pir and his carpet? When did he start living in an ASI controlled ruin? And rather than being a 'timeless' practise, our answers begin to point back to the distressingly close past, to the demolitions and dispossesions and terrors of the Emergency as they visited themselves upon the people of Delhi. There is no room here to go into those histories, alas, except to say that the jinns and the everyday violence of the city are inextricably mixed up, on beginning to research these letters.

Dalyrmple's book does not flinch from recording violence. The Emergency gets short shrift, but 1984, and Partition, and the excesses of Mohammad bin Tughlak are all well chronicled. But these are all spectacular events of violence; and by focusing on them one ignores the humdrum violence that is visited upon the less elite denizens of this city everyday, and with increasing frequency, and has been done so for a very long time. The uniqueness of Delhi is not that, to paraphrase Dalrymple, different centuries have been preserved intact, but that the past is constantly charged and transformed by the traumas of the present – that 'Tughlakshahi' becomes a metaphor for government arbitrariness and cruelty during the industrial closures of 2000.

Dalrymple is an engaging and important writer, and obviously loves the city. But to celebrate his romantic vision of a 'timeless' Delhi at the precise moment when the city is being transformed most brutally and rapidly, when the count of demolitions of homes and shops in the past year has gone insane, reeks of criminal callousness and cretinity among the city's elite. In the story that the Pir tells Dalrymple, Delhi is rebuilt again and again because the jinns love it too much to see it deserted. But all the jinns can do is to bear mute witness and read the letters deposited in their name, as those in power screw the city's denizens yet again, while we go and applaud the 'City of Jinns'.

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