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Historical Perspective of William Dalrymple: City of Djinns as a Travel Writing

  • 01-10-2017

Abstract- William Dalrymple is a popular, bestselling author, initially known for his travel writing City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993). Dalrymple’s travel writing maps the relationship between travel and history writing, especially in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Travel writing is a textual representation of cultural interactions.  City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (1993) repeatedly considers the British Raj and its legacies. The current research endeavor argues that the British Empire is represented through a sentimental and nostalgic lens, resulting in an overwhelmingly positive portrayal in the form of travel writing.

Keywords-Travel writing, Colonial hegemony, Oriental tropes, Decadence,

City of Djinns takes its readers on a journey down the memory lane where one not only encounters scenes from recent past in the history of Delhi (where Delhi epitomizes the heart of India and reflects the Indian identity at large) but also gets glimpses of historical events which took place in remote past. Dalrymple makes insightful observations about Delhi’s present as well as the past history. It moves freely from the present to the past and from personal experiences to historical, cultural and mythical. The prologue gives an idea of things to come and also provides the reader with the information regarding the title of the book.
William Dalrymple’s second monograph narates the story of his sojourn in Delhi with his wife Olivia. The text’s subtitle A Year in Delhi advances an easy equivalence between the monograph and a year in the author’s life.  The work introduces stories about the Mughals, the British, Partition and Independence through William’s personal connections. Dalrymple claims: “All the different ages of man were represented in the people of the city. Different millennia co-existed side by side” 1. The work portrays India as occupying a different temporal environment to Britain.
    The William of City of Djinns is equipped with the personality traits indispensable to be a valuable and effective settler colonist—he is practical, proficient, enthusiastic and trustworthy. One of the central aspects of Dalrymple’s work is its interaction with the British imperial presence in India. City of Djinns is the saga of an aristocratic Briton’s travel to and residence in Delhi, which makes it available for reading as an echo or repetition of early colonial encounters. Therefore, the ways in which William is represented throughout the text personalizes the empire.
City of Djinns’ protagonist represents the empire as much more unwavering, accountable, organized, balanced, audacious, domestic, respectful and long-suffering. Through the construction of the central character, the British colonial presence in India is epitomized as well-balanced. City of Djinns sees the central character portrayed as fit and active, as William’s first conversation with regular comic relief character Balvinder Singh, a Delhi taxi driver, demonstrates:
“How do you know I’m a Britisher?” “Because,” said Mr Singh, “you
are not sporting.” “Actually I am quite sporting,” I replied. “I go for a
run every day, swim in the summer...” “No Britisher is sporting,” said
Mr Singh, undaunted. “Lots of my countrymen are very keen on sport,”
 I retorted. “No, no,” said Mr Singh. “You are not catching me.” “We are
still a force to be reckoned with in the fifteen hundred metres, and
sometimes our cricket team...” “No, no,” said Mr Singh. “Still you are not
catching me. You Britishers are not sporting.” He twirled the waxed curlicues
of his moustache. “All men should be sporting a moustache, because all
ladies are liking too much.” (19)
The change in characterisation of William’s physical prowess appearsinsignificant; it facilitates a depiction of the British as proficient, practical, dynamiccolonisers.
City of Djinns’ investment in the conventions of the travel genre, as well as Dalrymple’s reputation as an entertaining travel writer, influences its classification as a straightforward travel text. When considering the positioning of City of Djinns within Dalrymple’s composition, it becomes apparent that different aspects of City of Djinns are accentuated for multifarious reasons. City of Djinns is positioned as the product or reflection of the psyche of a younger author who is yet to touch the intellectual zenith.
City of Djinns is writing with an intricate structure that contains a sometimes-unstable mixture of travel and history. It is Dalrymple’s stay in Delhi and his fascination for the city which leads him to search for its history. What holds all of the elements of this text together are an overwhelming concern with the amelioration of the reputation of the British in India.
City of Djinns engages itself with the history and architecture of numerous building in and around Delhi. Particular mention has been made to the tomb of Safdurjung, as the last great Mughal structure of the seventeenth century.City of Djinns as it is amalgamated with the elements of travel writing is a true representative of the genre of travel writing Dalrymple traverses Delhi gathering the minutest detail of its history from the present and then supplementing it with his comprehensive reading of the subject. He culminates in drawing a gripping picture of the city with a deep insight into both the present and the past of the city. This detailing of the historical sketch facilitates the readers to relive the culture and history of Delhi and at the same time becomes a foundation of reinforcement to secure the bygone from negligence.

Works Cited-
1. Chakrabarti, Rudradeep. ?Guest Column-From Djinns to Pandavas.? Delhi Walla 14 May 2008. Print.
2. Dalrymple, William. City of Djinns. Delhi: Penguin Books, 2004.


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