City of Djinns

One of the most petrifying driving experiences I had was on a highway in India, when a rapidly approaching dust cloud turned out to be a truck hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the highway. Dumbstruck, I gripped the seat in front of me, but our driver merely swerved to avoid the behemoth and continued blithely on his way.

“What was that?” I said, in a choked voice.

“Lorry, madam.”

Malaysia has more than its share of horrendous drivers, but I had never encountered anything quite like this. Most traffic offences in Malaysia seem to be committed by the tiny Kancil cars, which wedge themselves into motorcycle parking spots and cut you off so sharply that you expect to see your car bleeding. But we had nothing so terrifyingly picturesque as that encounter in Rajasthan. The bright blue sky and dry mustard fields, worked by women in traditional clothes. The flash of the splendidly decorated lorry adorned with painted eyes (not that they seemed much use to it). My driver’s que sera sera attitude, where most Malaysians would be apoplectically reaching for their tire irons. I realize of course, that these were only tourist impressions, and that one would have to live a long time in India before attempting to understand its nuances. Fortunately, I was able to gain a little headway through William Dalrymple’s wonderful City of Djinns.

Now, my bookshelves are primarily groaning with fiction, but this is one of my favourite non-fiction books which has survived many purges. In fact, I ought to quantify this by saying that I originally stole it from my father’s library because I liked it so much and I was sure he wasn’t going to reread it as often as I would. William Dalrymple, a young Englishman who had already won rave reviews for his travel book In Xanadu, which retraced Marco Polo’s route across central Asia, then spent a year living and researching in the city of Delhi. The compulsively readable result is a history of Delhi’s colourful past and present.

Did you know, for example, that Delhi is said to have been built on the ruins of seven dead cities and is now in its eighth incarnation? Or that the Mughal emperors of India were actually descended from the Mongols, thus accounting for their almond-shaped eyes? The repeated rise and fall of this historic city, with its ferocious politics and tragic tales of emperors and slaves, is captured in this deceptively slim book.

I don’t know how William Dalrymple amassed all this knowledge; his research seems to have included not only scholarly sources, but lots of wandering around and chatting with people. Which leads me to believe that in person he must be extraordinarily charming. Or dogged, if he was able to insinuate himself into a house of eunuchs (yes, real eunuchs, and it’s a very sad story). He’s since gone on to write many other award-winning histories, the latest being Return of a King (FT Review), but this book, written when he was only 23, is a fascinating introduction to India.

Chai Snack Suggestions to Go With This Book:

  • Samosas and mint sauce
  • Hot chai tea – here’s a traditional from-scratch recipe


I’m giving away two new (non-stolen) copies of City of Djinns to two lucky winners!

For a week, from Feb 4-11th 2013, if you do any of the following: like my Facebook page,  share this link on Facebookretweet or follow me on Twitter (or all four!), you’ll be entered into the random book drawing. If you’re retweeting or sharing on FB, please leave a comment on this page so that I’ll know to put your name down. Winners will be announced on Tuesday, Feb 12th, and can be anywhere in the world as long as there’s a way to post a book to you.

THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED – Congratulations to winners Carolyn and Brandy, and thank you so much to everyone who participated!

What’s your favourite travel book?

24 responses to “City of Djinns”

  1. I was at Cambridge when Will Dalrymple was there. I met “Laura” with whom he made the epic journey he desribed in “In Xanadu”.
    She said planned and organised that whole journey and only took him along as a “token male” because it was illegal for a woman to travel alone in many of the countries they journeyed through. She never spoke to him again because she found him such a damn nuisance and, when she got dysentery, he was totally idiotic and didn’t help her.
    She was absolutely infuriated that he described the whole journey in his book as if she were the helpless female and he was looking after her, when in fact she was the seasoned traveller and she constantly had to get him out of scrapes, translate from the many Middle Eastern languages she knew, etc.

    I do still think he writes very entertainingly and I respect him as a historian.

    Well, my fave travel writer has to be Tom Moore – factual, interesting and terribly, wickedly funny. His best book in my opinion is “Frost on my Moustache”.

    I’ve decided to follow you on Twitter BTW

    • What a small world, and amazing that you know “Laura”! I read “In Xanadu” many years ago, but I remember thinking at the time that he had a sort of crush on “Laura”… Well, maybe that was just my imagination reading between the lines as I got the impression that she was quite attractive 😉 They must have been very young at the time — teenagers?

      Thanks for the Twitter follow, I’ll have to add Tom Moore to my reading shelf!

      • Yes, they were both about 20 and yes, I also got the impression from the book that he had a crush on her. She was indeed pretty and charismatic and I got the distinct impression the crush was not reciprocated!!!

  2. I’ve followed on Twitter. Since I recently picked up William Dalrymple’s ‘In Xanadu: A Quest’ which looks splendid — for a Mongol and steppe history freak like me. Also I do like chai.

      • Can I sit down and chat with your 7-year-old?
        I forgot to answer on my favourite travel book. That’s definitely Huc and Gabet, ‘Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China, 1844-1846’. I like old travels, from before modernity set in, and Huc and Gabet — French Jesuit priests — were without the prejudices of their times. A book guaranteed, I say, to give you a love for Mongol life.

  3. I tweeted this! 🙂

    I don’t know that I have a favorite travel book, to be honest, although I do love a novel with a good sense of place. The best I’ve read lately in that category would have to be Drawing in the Dust by Zoe Klein.

  4. Not sure about a travel book, however, Danny You started writing one about rte. 60 between Fenway Park in Boston to Chicago. It journeys on to the west coast. I enjoyed his writing process and reading to our Exotic Pen Writers group. I traveled with him for his second rte. 60 journey, made to refresh his ideas for his book. Quite good. We have other writers who have worked on similiar processes, or plan to.

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