Book Review: City of Djinns – William Dalrymple [TSS]

Title: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
Author: William Dalrymple and Olivia Fraser
ISBN: 9780142001004
Pages: 350
Release Date: March 25, 2003
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 3 out of 5


In this part-travelogue and part-history, William Dalrymple discusses the history of Delhi and how the city’s colored past affects its present and future.


The genre of history-as-travelogue (or is it travelogue-as-history?) has been increasingly prevalent as of late. Straight histories can be dry and tedious, and few of them appeal to the casual reader. Travelogues, however, are full of flavor and life. Yes, they can relate history well, but they also communicate culture and have a personal touch. It’s no wonder that they are becoming more popular, and with the increasing cultural, social, and economic shifts India is currently undergoing, it’s not surprising that many writers are choosing to focus on this country in transition.

Before India became the buzzword in travelogues, William Dalrymple, a Scottish historian well-versed in Indian history and culture, wrote a travelogue called City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, which is about the year he and his wife spent living in Delhi. He relates the challenges and delights of their daily lives, from his dealings with his landlady to the difficulties of facing Indian traffic. While he has a humorous tone and writes about these situations well, the fun he pokes at India feels a bit stale. Of course, this book was written over fifteen years ago, so Indian stereotypes could have been less well-known then, but either way, the present-day aspect of this book, while witty, doesn’t present anything new for readers familiar with India.

The history portion of City of Djinns is engaging as well. Dalrymple has a knack for bringing Delhi’s past to life for the reader. The book moves backwards through time, starting with the city’s most recent past and here, the book shows its age. India has changed so much in the last fifteen to twenty years, since this book was written. The “recent past” portions of the book seem almost irrelevant at this point; it’s a bit of a slog to get through to the real history of the city. Of course, this is absolutely no fault of the author’s – no matter the time period, he is always engaging and interesting. But this is a book that, sadly, did not age well.

While I enjoyed the time I spent with City of Djinns, I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s definitely a good read, but there are so many more recent travelogues about India out there that are much more relevant. If you’re a fan of Dalrymple’s, I would definitely pick this book up, but if you’re just looking for a great travel/history book about Delhi, I’d steer you towards Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity or perhaps Dalrymple’s more recent travelogue (which I haven’t read), called Nine Lives.

Other books by William Dalrymple:

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1957

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  1. Trust this Scot-man describe and co-relate the past and present in a refreshingly straight-forward , lucid and intelligent literary feat, that I think, no Indian writer can achieve..For all his research and his intuitive ear & eyes for details, possible only by grace of the God, I hope his services should be used by the authorities in restoring/re-telling/publicizing the forgotten monuments and places for benefit of not-only history-buffs and foreigners, but also to our own countrymen
    , school-children, and future generations..

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