Last summer I read William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. Part travelogue, part love affair with his favorite city, Mr. Dalrymple discusses his six-year sojourn in the Indian capital, Delhi. The city is said to be the eight iteration of a long line of past cities to inhabit this particular spot on the shifting bank of the River Yamuna. Depending on whom you ask, however, the crumbling ruins date back to twenty former cities. “Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt,” Mr. Dalrymple writes, as “the djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted.”
I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 17:30 local time following the now-discontinued American Airlines flight 292 nonstop from Chicago. Greatly expanded and modernized for the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the airport hummed with voices, people from across the subcontinent descending upon their once and future capital.
To say Delhi is frenetic would be a mischaracterization. The Indian capital teems with bicycles, rickshaws, beggars, the devout of several religions, the horribly maimed, gaunt children swatting flies from their brows, people selling the distinctive South Asian flatbread naan, wealthy women dressed in silk and lace and gold, dogs, a few chickens, and sweaty men hawking maps and car parts and sweet Indian deserts made of butter, sugar, yogurt, and apricots. And cows. The horns of a thousand cars and of even more tuk-tuks fill the wet and heavy air, smelling of petrol. There is a certain smell in developing countries, the mixture of humidity and gasoline, combusted by auto-rickshaws and chicken buses and cars-that-were-only-supposed-to-hold-five-but-now-seat-eleven. You can smell it in Cairo, in Guatemala City, and definitely in Delhi.
Very few cities can claim as much extant history as Delhi. Tombs of Mughal emperors leave a lasting imprint upon the architecture of the city. Humayun’s Tomb challenges even the Taj Mahal for the most intricate and beautiful mausoleum. Great forts of ages past – the crumbling Purana Qila (Old Fort) and Delhi’s most visited site, the Red Fort – speak of a bygone time when camels and men swept eastward across the Indus Valley, bringing with them the strange things called coffee and Islam. The nation’s national symbol, the India Gate which marks the death of 90,000 Indians who fought for the British Raj in World War I, and the Birla Bhivan, the spot on which Mahatma Gandhi was killed and uttered his final words – “oh Raam” (“oh God”) – mark India’s sometimes turbulent capitulations into modernity. Mr. Dalrymple describes this unusual layering effect of Delhi’s distant past and recent past as “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic.”
Delhi was not my favorite city upon arrival. It was dirty and hectic to the point of exhaustion. Lately, I have given thought to Mr. Dalrymple’s ardent fervor for this place in north India. Under a copper sky, one can see the illuminations of past visions of Delhi dating back to the famed Indraprastha of the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. Even in British-designed New Delhi, crumbling mosques and ruins built a thousand years prior obscure a view of the golf course. Delhi is chaotically resplendent, beautiful and bizarre in its own unkempt and unrestrained way. Just as the Hindus believe a body is reincarnated until it becomes perfect, Delhi too has been razed and rebuilt, cities upon cities upon cities, seemingly fated to one day reach its crowning state. It is on its way.