The Layers of History: William Dalrymple's City of Djinns

(Note: thanks to all everyone who wrote in their congrats. Everything went smoothly with the move. No internet at home yet, though.)

William Dalrymple's City of Djinns: A Year In Delhi is exactly the kind of book I had in mind when I was putting together my "Travel Writers" course. It's thick with historical material: everything from 1984 to 1947, to the British Raj, to the Mughals, to Muhammed-bin-Tughlaq, and more. But it's also accessible, and just personal enough that my students found their way into it.

Unlike Sarah Macdonald's book Holy Cow, which is at best an introduction for readers without much background, I would recommend Dalrymple's City of Djinns to Indians, including NRIs as well as readers living in India. Dalrymple knows his stuff, and can find ways to make Muhammed-bin-Tughlaq and the historical writings of Ibn Battuta -- seemingly like dry and dusty topics -- come to life. But these more historical episodes are blended in with more contemporary issues like communalism in ways that are generally pretty seamless.

The earlier chapters deal with more recent events; Dalrymple digs further into the past as he gets deeper into his narrative.

The chapter on 1984 is particularly strong. Dalrymple meets some survivors of the massacre of Sikhs that occurred at Trilokpuri, including the one remaining Sikh family from the neighborhood (who are also profiled in this Express India story). Dalrymple also gets the inside story from a group of Hijras he meets. In both instances, he manages to get really good interviews from people we wouldn't expect to be very forthcoming with a foreigner. It's not quite the level of penetration one sees in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, but it's pretty impressive all the same: Dalrymple knows enough Hindustani to move independently of translators or mediators, and it makes a world of difference.

The biggest surprise for me in Dalrymple's book are the enlightening discussions of Delhi's architecture. Dalrymple has some provocative insights on the design philosophy of New Delhi, and also comments on many Mughal-era buildings that are scattered around Delhi and elsewhere nearby.

First, on Edward Lutyens' New Delhi. Dalrymple starts by playing up its impressive feel:

To best appreciate New Delhi I used to walk to it from the Old City. Leaving behind the press and confusion of Shahjehanabad -- the noise and the heat, the rickshaws and the barrow-boys, the incense and the sewer-stink -- I would find myself suddenly in a gridiron of wide avenues and open boulevards, a scheme as ordered and inevitable as a Bach fugue. Suddenly the roads would be empty and the air clean. There was no dust, no heat: all was shaded, green, and cool. Ahead, at the end of the avenue, rose the great chattri which once held the statue of George V. Arriving there at hte end of the green tunnel, I would turn a right angle and see the cinnamon sky stretching out ahead, no longer veiled by a burqa of buildings or trees. It was like coming up for air.

This was Rajpath -- once the Kingsway -- one of the great ceremonial ways of the world. It was planned as an Imperial Champs Elysées -- complete with India Gate, its own butter-colored Arc de Triomphe. But it was far wider, far greener, far more magnificent than anything comparable in Europe. On either side ran wide lawns giving on to fountains and straight avenues of eucalyptus and casuarina. Beyond, canals running parallel to the road reflected the surroundings with mirror-like fidelity.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? But what starts out seeming like a comparison to democratic, post-Revolutionary Paris quickly gives way to an awareness that it wasn't exactly the spirit of democracy that drove Lutyens' thinking. Here is Dalrymple on the Viceroy's House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan):

Nevertheless, the more often I came and looked, the more I felt a nagging reservation. This had less to do with aesthetics than with comparisons with other massive schemes of roughly similar date that the complex brought to mind. Then one evening, as I proceeded up the cutting and emerged to find Baker's Secretariats terminating in the wide portico of the Viceroy's House, with this great imperial mass of masonry towering all around me I suddenly realized where I had seen something similar, something equally vast, equally dwarfing, before: Nuremberg.

In its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption, there was a distant but distinct echo of something Fascist or even Nazi about the great acropolis of Imperial Delhi. Certainly it is far more beautiful than anything Hitler and Mussolini ever raised: Lutyens, after all, was a far, far greater architect than Albert Speer. Yet the comparison still seemed reasonable. For, despite their very many, very great differences, Imperial India, Fascist Italy and Nazy Germany all belonged to comparable worlds. All were to different extents authoritarian; all made much of magnificent display; all were built on a myth of racial superiority and buttressed in the last resort by force.

Just to be clear, here Dalrymple is referring specifically to the Viceroy's house/ Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, not to the entirety of Lutyens' architectural plan.

And while it's a very compelling bit of writing, the fact that Dalrymple does such a hair-pin turn on his estimation of Lutyens' achievement -- first admiring it, and then condemning it as an expression of Imperial arrogance -- makes me wonder. Does scale necessarily convey "megalomaniac" ambitions? Can we really read a politics into the architecture of New Delhi?

Susan Buck-Morss raises a similar question in her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe when she compares the monuments of Stalin's 1930s Soviet Union with the great skyscrapers and monumental architecture that went up in New York and Chicago during exactly the same era. Stalinist architecture is often interpreted as an attempt to awe the tiny individual man into acquiescence: look at what we can do. But why not read the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center the same way? Buck-Morss shows that Capitalist monuments might not be so different from contemporaneous Communist monuments, which for me makes any simple ideological interpretation of architectural forms a bit doubtful.

Something similar could be said for Dalrymple's interpretation of Lutyens' New Delhi: is it the Baron Haussmann's wide boulevards and the Arc de Triomphe or Albert Speer and Nuremberg -- or both?

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Another intriguing comment on architecture appears in the chapter where Dalrymple talks about William Fraser, a Scotsman who worked for the British East India Company at the beginning of the 19th century -- when Delhi was still somewhat untamed by the British, and the Raj was still firmly rooted in Calcutta.

Dalrymple benefits from an accident of history: he happens to be married to a descendent of William Fraser, the artist Olivia Fraser (who does the wonderful illustrations in the book, and is a painter in her own right). Through Olivia, Dalrymple gains access to Fraser's letters to his brothers during his time in India -- fascinating material that you won't find anywhere else.

But Dalrymple also discovers that some of the buildings used by Fraser are still around, albeit neglected. The old Residency is now locked up, but interesting to visit nonetheless:

Saddened by the decay and neglect, we began to turn away from the building when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something which made me stop. At the back of the Residency, the plaster-coveed British masonry rested on a plinth not of brick, as elsewhere in the building, but of mottled pink Agra sandstone. The stonework was broken by a line of cusped Mughal blind-arches. The work was unmistakably from the period of Shah Jehan.

Although the building was locked and deserted, it was still possible to peer in through the old Residency windows. What lay within confirmed the hint given by the plinth. Behind the classical facade lay the earlier frontage of a Mughal pavilion: a double row of blind arches leading up to a central portal. The entire building was erected on the foundations of a much earlier mansion. It all made sense: when the Emperor gave the British the ruins of the library of Dara Shukoh, Shah Jehan's eldest son, they saw no need to knock down the existing work and start afresh; instead they merely erected a classical facade over a Mughal substructure. . . . in public establishing the British presence; but inside, in private, living the life of a Nawab.

Is it just me, or is this Fielding's house in A Passage to India all over again? Compare this description to a passage in Forster's novel:

It was an audience hall built in the eighteenth century for some high official, and though of wood had reminded Fielding of the Loggia de' Lanzi at Florence. Little rooms, now Europeanized, clung to it on either side, but the central hall was unpapered and unglassed, and the air of the garden poured in freely. One sat in public—on exhibition, as it were—in full view of the gardeners who were screaming at the birds and of the man who rented the tank for the cultivation of water chestnut. Fielding let the mango trees too—there was no knowing who might not come in—and his servants sat on his steps night and day to discourage thieves. Beautiful certainly, and the Englishman had not spoilt it, whereas Aziz in an occidental moment would have hung Maude Goodmans on the walls. Yet there was no doubt to whom the room really belonged

Both Dalrymple's version of Fraser's bungalow and Forster's description of Fielding's house are interesting on their own terms -- as descriptions of space and architecture. But they are also of course metaphors for the British Raj as a whole, which built itself on the framework of the Mughals to a sometimes surprising degree (especially early on). And with Forster's obsession with "privacy" in colonial India, and Dalrymple's allusion to the private, Nawab life of British officials, both writers are also hinting at the Orientalist fantasy that made the hybrid Euro-Mughal edifices so appealing: behind the modern, European facade was a desire for the unchecked, authoritarian power that would only be expressed privately (Fraser kept a large harem of Indian women; Forster had dealings with prostitutes procured by the Maharajah he worked for, described in the "Kanaya" memoir).

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To be clear, discussions of Delhi's architecture play only a small part in Dalrymple's City of Djinns. But these were the passages that I found to be most provocative -- new to me -- in a book that is full of interesting material (see Dalrymple's account of partridge fighting, or his conversation with an Indian archeologist on the possible veracity of the events described in the Mahabharata!). Despite some of his recent controversial statements about Indian literature in English (see Kitabkhana for more), Dalrymple is a strong writer who slices through the layers of history to reveal Delhi's dil.