Delhi suffered on account of an ancient curse. One that condemned it to doom until seven dynasties had fallen.
New Delhi, as we know it today, seats the eighth rule.
Historians from Gabrielle Feasting in the early twentieth century to current day Romila Thapar have vouched for the rise and fall of seven cities and for centuries of supremacy-struggles while cartographers have mapped the precise confines of each of these seven metropolises.
I have no quarrel with either one of them.
I am a shadow explorer, one who searches out past secrets differently.
The undisclosed comes to me through djinns, viscous shadows who move in between the realm of the alive and the dead, a mix of air and fire. Believe it or not, this is my boundary of enquiry, a realm where spiritual and material world touch.
With roots in a parallel world, djinns have the ability to see into our world and participate in it. To most people they are unreal and invisible, to me they are not. They speak to me as I would speak to you if we met.
Djinn-seeking is also what I do for a living. I go to places un-huddled by people, look around for djinns, seek out their secrets and then take people interested in such ghostly escapades and communiques to meet with multitudes of restless dead.
My affinity for this sort of exploration is deep. I know my reality is different to everything popular and prevalent. After all, people see reality as the sum of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. They see real as genuine, reliable, and what they can safely lean upon. Its opposite is illusion, the counterfeit, that which can’t be trusted, has no monetary value.
Literature often deals in illusion. It can be real in the sense that they help to make sense of experiences. So if you have trouble believing my narration, take it to be a tale that helps you make sense of my story that lies between borders of the real and the illusory. After all, many of you did buy into William Dalrymple ‘City of Djinns’ way back in 1993 “as an irresistible blend of research and history” where the continuity of djinns in the lives of some people and communities was shown as an acceptable belief and one that continues to ignite popular imagination.
Beyond this, I don’t know what to say to those who use the narrow confines of reason to understand the world. To those who do not believe in unknown territories and beings.
My research tells me I will find djinns in the area of Lal Kot, the first of Delhi’s seven cities and the oldest version of what I recognize to be today’s Delhi. This city was ruled by the Rajput Chauhans between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the Delhi Sultanate in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Khiljis in the fourteenth century and later by the British.
I start my explorations of the first city at the Mehrauli’s Archeological Park area, heading directly towards Jamali Kamali, which seekers before me have identified to be a djinn haunt. This is a mosque that also has a burial place for two Sufi saints, Jamali and Kamali, venerated by the kings of the Lodhi dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate.
I am warned that if I risk a visit here on a summer’s day the blinding sun will cling film me in full, leaving me inflamed. And that I will be rendered insensate by the time I escape the clutches of the flower sellers, who are completely uncaring of the crumbling monuments, their glorious past and the secrets of the dead they stand over.
I am advised that it is the night that will shift my experience. It does.
I set out in the month of June post-sundown to Jamali Kamali. I go past crumbling ruins and tombs on the way, not stopping to explore them though they hold tremendous intrigue and appeal.
The irresistible fragrance around trees is the only thing that slows my steps. I stop to inhale the aroma, realizing only later that it is not the vulgarly open resin capillaries on trees that emit this smell but the ittar or perfumed oil rubbed into tree barks by djinn devotees.
I finally come upon an innocuous-looking gate that should lead me into this mosque cum mausoleum. Darkness has begun to set in and I cannot see anything ahead of me with any kind of clarity. The gate morphs into a black hole before my distrustful eyes and a wondrous nothingness swallows me for a while in the moonless night.
I have no sense of self or where I am until shapes begin to gather in my line of vision. Begin to coalesce into some kind of form. I then emerge slowly into myself.
I come upon a courtyard, with a flourishing tree in the middle. Its leaves flutter and its tree limbs rustle soothingly in a melodious white noise.
I then make out a shallow well-like structure on the right, with underground aqueducts. I am sure, centuries before, this was where the faithful cleansed themselves before offering namaz.
I picture dusty, weary travellers from afar and a set of more energetic pilgrims from closer by, gathering to clean themselves, catch up on news, pray and eat. I envision their camels, horses and cow-driven carts being tethered in the open spaces on the left.
Before I allow my thoughts to trail any further, the Jamali Kamali mosque rises before me. Even in the absence of the moonlight, it is luminous and its majesty lends it an aura of calm magnificence. I have read that it was built in 1528 AD by the saints’ disciples.
It is clearly a mélange of Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Islamic architecture with the ‘jharokha’ or the Hindu Rajasthani balcony, the Star of David or ‘Daud’ revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and the red sandstone with marble embellishments, fluted pilasters, octagonal towers, arches and Quranic inscriptions particular to Islamic architecture.
I wander inside, undisturbed yet disappointed by the absence of djinns.
To people who ask why djinns only appear at night in places of worship, my answer is this: The One Above does not like places of worship to be without worshippers, so djinns appear to keep his words alive.
A gate on the extreme right attracts my attention. It is padlocked and several steel chains crisscross the gate to ward off intruders like me. I can see it leads to the mausoleum.
I struggle to find an entry point, fruitlessly pulling at the lock and chains. Suddenly, the gates swing open on their own.
I know for sure now I am within the circle of djinns, and am not alone. I hear their whispers, padded feet scurrying and feel nudgings. They offer me a glimpse of themselves, appearing as flimsy, aerial beings, whirling and capering, as creatures with impetuous cries.
With an ability to shape-shift, their whirling around in wild eddies in specific shapes is perhaps their way of indulging me, a way to offer me some measure of credulity.
I walk on, elated in this realm which is not easy to know, yet unafraid of these souls and eager to know what they want to say.
They beckon me gently, and urge me beyond the exterior orange, blue and beige-chequered patterned tiles to the graves of Jamali and Kamali. The quietude within the graves brings an abiding restfulness. My eyes wander to the ceiling decorated with stucco work and glazed tiles. I am mesmerized by the intricacy of the inlays, the shimmer of the blue and yellow tiles and the line-up of cultural styles.
The Archeological Survey of India keeps the tomb from being an active dargah or ‘the door to the place’, as it was intended, for fear of it being vandalized by insensitive visitors. Or perhaps because they are overloaded with work. Or maybe because they have forgotten their history.
I know for a fact that earlier visitors of all faiths would gather here in peace to listen and dance to the words of these two saints set to music.
Is that what the djinns are telling me? To open up this place for people of all faiths and beliefs so that foe and stranger there is none?
As I ponder, one nebulous, air-borne djinn, appearing from nowhere, tut-tuts my simple understanding. Right before my disbelieving eyes, he grows pointed ears and eyebrows, twitching them frantically in a show of incredulity. “Silly, we are not just talking of a mix of faiths to show peaceful co-existence but of something deeper, of keeping faith within so that that it does not become unkind and unwelcoming of difference.”
“This always happens when faith is on public display as you must have seen,” he explains to me patiently as if to a toddler.
Another djinn float-sidles up to me. He swings his ponytail on his otherwise bald pate to grab my attention. “Do you not see that it is our wish to lead you all away from your greatest living threat, hate? The hate of one group for another.” The white glow from the faint light above gives his flailing ponytail the air of an orbiting comet.
Before I recover from growing ears and eyebrows and rotating manes, a female djinn swirls forward, her loose black hair swaying in waves, making me feel as if I am standing on a river of wind.
“Know that difference among people is not bad,” she breathes into my ear. “It is the naïve who separate those who are not like them. Engagement with those with different ideas, an understanding about what makes them ‘them’ is how one carries people along, differences and all, to build an enduring city.”
Before she skims sideways, she says, “See I how I bear up to pointy ears and ponytail. This is the secret to keep your eighth city intact.”
As a trusted emissary, I have tried to impart the exact happenings so as not to deform djinn truths. I may have, at times, slipped between the cracks, between the reality of my experience and how I have described and interpreted it. Words, after all, are a poor substitute for images.
To people who question my visions as ‘a prophet’s insanity’, I say it is less myth, more truth.
I know that if, after this careful rendering, my off-the-leash djinn truths do not matter to the disbelieving it will not matter anytime.
If my way of life makes their blood run cold, I say theirs is a more dangerous way to be. The real horror. A love for a set of people to whom they feel they belong and hate for others is laying limits to human capability towards love and their belief in the magic of oneness.
The djinns, the legends of air and fire, have said their say about humanity. In lightness, with their meandering idiosyncrasies while stepping out of mythos. Their ephemeral fortune telling is over. They have shown us the reality beneath the shadows.
I say, to ignore their words, is to play a fool’s game and lose our eighth city.
BIO: Chitra Gopalakrishnan is a New Delhi-based journalist by training, a social development communications consultant by profession and a creative writer by choice. As a social development communicator, she has written several books on issues of gender, child rights and the environment. Her work has been published and accepted at: Black Hare Press, Fantasia Divinity, Mefirst Magazine, Literary Yard, Terror House Magazine and Spillwords, among others.
Of this short story, Chitra says: “Of late, I have delved into fiction and have been intrigued by people who live on the margins of society and willfully exploit all genres to tell their stories. This is my short story of a shadow explorer, one who searches out past secrets differently. He seeks out djinns in present-day New Delhi. To most people in New Delhi today, djinns are unreal, products of the fevered imagination of fables. Does this mean we diminish and dismiss the experiences of the shadow explorer as deluded hallucination?”