Seven whole civilizations have grown, thrived and crashed in Delhi. If the djinns guarding it had chosen to migrate, the city would have been laid to waste centuries ago. But they stuck around and rallied the good forces every time.
City of Djinns was writer-traveller William Dalrymple’s personal journey through the many layers of this city’s history. It told the story of the city beginning with the anti-Sikh riots in 1984. It wound its way back in history through the Partition, the British Empire and the East India Company, the Mughal Empire and finally rested with pre-history and archaeology.
Now, one of the best loved books on the city has been scripted into a play by Rahul Dasinnur Pulkeshi of Delhi-based Dreamtheatre. And playing Dalrymple is veteran stage and screen actor Tom Alter, a keen admirer of the city.
Dalrymple says he was not sure the book was drama material. “But they were so full of enthusiasm and bright ideas I was happy to let them try. And I am especially intrigued by the idea of Tom Alter, who is no spring chicken, playing me aged 22,” he quips.
What drew Alter to the venture was the fact that the book spun out the story of Delhi’s fascinating past, but remained rooted in the present. “I spent my childhood in Mussoorie. Delhi was the nearest big, bad city and my father insisted that we understand its history. He instilled in me a deep love for the city and its past, and also the history of the entire north. So the play for me is a great adventure and I love playing the author who takes the audience through the city’s past,” says Alter, who rates City of Djinns among his favourite books.
Pulkeshi promises to put together a riotous ensemble of 60 characters on stage for two hours and he is not banking on professional actors to do this for him. He has actually recruited from the lanes and bylanes of Old Delhi, artisans, entertainers and odd-jobs men who give the area its distinct character such as the kabootarbaaz (pigeon keeper), the tangawallah, the calligrapher, and the warakh (edible silver leaf) maker. And an invitation for a wedding daawat (feast) will go out to the audiences, who will get to sample Delhi’s famous chaat, kebabs and kulfi tossed up by the masters from the old city’s kitchens.
“The sets we created for the ‘actors’ from Old Delhi will be as close as possible to its gallis and kuchas (uncemented roads). It is also why the play is being staged in Maatighar—it’s close to where King Edward was coronated and where the 1857 Mutiny started and was quelled,” says Pulkeshi.
Playing Nora Nicholson, a Briton who refuses to leave India after Independence, is the fiesty Zohra Sehgal. “Sehgal fit in beautifully with the role of an 80-year-old with great memories of the Raj, a clipped Hindi accent and an ability to fight odds,” says Pulkeshi. Sehgal was busy with her role in Yashraj Films’ latest venture being directed by Pradeep Sarkar when she was offered the role. Despite a knee implant and impaired hearing, she remains one of the best loved faces in theatre today. What drew her to the play was the fact that she greatly enjoyed both City of Djinns and Dalrymple’s White Mughals. It also helped that she plays the role of a wheelchair-bound character in the play.
The play, unlike the book, will veer into Hindi, Hindustani, Urdu, and Punjabi wherever it helps the script. It is slated to travel to Mumbai and Pune between May and June.
City of Djinns, 13 April to 26 April, at Maatighar, IGNCA, New Delhi.