If I could write like any other writer in the world… or I could be any other writer in the world… it would be a matter of choosing between Mark Salzman or William Dalrymple. (…although Ayun Halliday is a close second…) The latter I discovered while backpacking through India with B., when we were both sick of the dust and stench that Delhi rammed down our throats and were desperate to escape by any means possible, even if it meant cow-napping the nearest sacred mammal and lumbering our way out of the capital on its wretched back.
At the risk of offending any Indian friends, I’ll say that Delhi is a city one must prepare for, a sensory explosion that can leave one trembling with a mixture of fear and rage, especially if the visit is a short one. It’s an experience best served on a silver platter, perhaps behind the cool glass of a comfortable tour bus if one is limited to a short stay. Otherwise, it’s almost guaranteed to drive you mad. By the time B. and I finally made our way out of the city a little less than week after arrival, we were thisclose to just clawing and crawling our way to the golden promise of the eastern coast.
But wouldn’t you know it… just a day or two before our departure, I happened upon a secondhand copy of The City of Djinns, Dalrymple’s valentine to the city’s history as well as an account of his first year as a new resident. I don’t even remember what drew me to it, but I do remember beginning to read it on the train ride out of Delhi.
Dalrymple’s narratives of the city’s storied past, its unbelievable (but true) characters, architecture, music, literature…everything that makes the city such a visual and sensual riot, how it wraps itself around your brain and your body like a wispy film and seizes what last remaining sense you may have… it was captivating. By the time we reached our destination — Goa — and were comfortably and happily reveling in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, I was already persuading B. of the need to return to Delhi when we were finished with our transcontinental trek. We must return to Delhi early, and really see it, taste that same dust and swallow its thousands of years of joy and sorrow.
I knew he thought I must’ve grown mad because he took it upon himself to read the book as well. And you know what? He agreed with me. And we did return to Delhi and all her sunny glory, and we found that when we emerged from the train station at the mouth of the old city — that filthy, smelly entrance with its foul, hot breath — we did see it through new eyes. And we loved every last second of our last few days.
And I knew that a writer who could make me fall in love with the city that had first greeted me with such raw pain, that had dragged me to my knees, must be one hell of a writer. And he was. And is. And that’s the kind of writer I want to be.