Looking back on it, illness has always provided me the opportunity of finally getting around to reading books that I had been meaning to do so for a long time. It was while suffering from flu when visiting Rajasthan during one winter and being confined to home that led me to discover William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns.
I had had the opportunity of listening to Dalrymple speak about his book, White Mughals while pursuing my Masters; I was researching colonial attitudes towards gender, race and class in India during that time and it’s surprising that I never picked up either White Mughals or City of Djinns then. Perhaps, for me, Delhi had always been a transit point and a gray bureaucratic one at that; the tombs scattered across the city seemed incidental, irrelevant even, to its present narrative.
However, as I began to read the book, which essentially documents a year that Dalrymple and his artist wife, Olivia spent in Delhi, his experiences in Delhi running parallel to his representation of Delhi’s multiple avatars, whether the Raj, Twilight, or Mughal periods, I became especially drawn towards his descriptions of the havelis in Chandni Chowk, the Red Fort, the gardens, tombs, and the dargahs. I felt ashamed at being so blinkered, so deliberately ignorant of the palimpsest that Delhi was.
A couple months afterwards, as it happened, I pursued a three week artist’s residency in Delhi, allowing me to revisit and more crucially, re-see Delhi,; as it happened, memorably and synchronistically, I ended up attending a theatre production of City of Djinns in which Tom Alter played Dalrymple and legendary Zohra Segal graced the audience with her performance. On the night I attended the show, there was a terrific dust-storm towards the end and nature’s theatrics added yet another dimension to the performance. I also remember a wonderful morning at Humayun’s Tomb, reveling in the relative absence of fellow visitors, thinking to myself that its warm red sandstone (indeed, pretty much the color of this blog’s background) beauty seemed so much more alive and fresh than that of the Taj Mahal's clichéd one, which I had encountered in the same trip. Similarly, roaming through Chandni Chowk with friends, as they bought iridescent buttons to later abstract into jewelry and OTT kitsch neckpieces, I exclaimed with delight while stumbling into a lane full of havelis, a turquoise and pink one with sharp magenta-hued bougainvillea striping its walls particularly standing out.
While great many images of Delhi (Lutyens and Old Delhi) naturally abound, for some reason, this wonderfully atmospheric, dramatic Raghu Rai image of Old Delhi best encapsulates what I personally associate with Delhi or perhaps, more accurately, the atmosphere of City of Djinns. The swirling drama of the clouds, a city embracing night, and a figure immersed in prayer: the image is nothing short of being reverential of the power of dusk, that twilight zone between the spent heat of the day and the inky, powerful coolness of the night that beckons.
You can read more about the story behind this iconic Raghu Rai photograph over here