Speaking Volumes: Under construction-the great Delhi novel

(Published in the Business Standard, March 22, 2010)

Drawing a literary map of Bombay, or Calcutta, is a relatively straightforward exercise: writers fall into neat categories, and time periods, and claim their neighbourhoods easily.

But as a recent collection of writings on Delhi indicates, this is the original Trickster City. In most of its centuries, Delhi has hosted more writers than it has nurtured them: the capital has been the resting place, the halt between stages of a writer’s career rather than the inspiration for great writing. Foreign correspondents and old Asia hands pass through Dilli on their way to Ayodhya or Kashmir or Maoist Chattisgarh. After the last mushaira in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time, Delhi has housed poets, but there has been no great outpouring of Delhi poetry—nothing to match Bombay’s line-up of Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawala and Jeet Thayil.

At Penguin’s Spring Fever festival, a final session was dedicated to the Trickster City. That’s also the title of a collection of writings, translated from Bahurupiya Shahar, which illustrates one of the big problems of writing about this city. Literary Delhi is usually either South Delhi or Old Dilli, with the party palaces, bleak concrete jungles and constantly resettled slums of North Delhi unchronicled, until now.

For some of us, listening to William Dalrymple and Mahmood Farooqui brought in a sense of déjà vu. Dalrymple was at the threshold of his career as a flamboyant historian when he wrote City of Djinns in 1994, and as he said, the city he captured in that book doesn’t exist any more. Mahmood Farooqui began his dastangoi performances several years ago, as a kind of literary curiosity, a revival of the storytelling traditions of the past: his book on Delhi in 1857 will soon be out. For Dilliwallas, much as we celebrate the achievements of Dalrymple or Farooqui, watching them in performances that have become familiar over a decade is a reminder of how few Delhi writers, and great Delhi novels, there have been.

Part of this is what might be called the Great Washington Novel conundrum: there are great writers from Washington, but no iconic fiction to match the great New York novels. Nayantara Sahgal chronicled political Delhi in novels like Rich Like Us and A Situation in New Delhi, but it is hard to pull off truly great writing about administrative capitals—it’s like pulling off the great oil novel, as Amitav Ghosh once remarked. It is theoretically possible, but it doesn’t happen that often.

Among younger writers, there’s been something of a shift. An earlier collection of short stories, Delhi Noir, had a rocking premise—capturing the underbelly of a city that has only a thin barrier of gated communities dividing its pleasant surface from its extreme darkness. But its version of Delhi was closer to flabby paunch than dark underbelly; Trickster City with its blend of rough-hewn, unstylised writing and sharp, acute observations offers a much more disturbing take on Dilli.

Aatish Taseer and Mridula Koshy have both produced debut works of fiction that take you into the complexities of Delhi: instead of the seven (or thirteen) cities of its historical past, today’s Delhi offers seven (or more) cities co-existing uneasily with one another. And novelist Rana Dasgupta is working on a non-fiction narrative about the city—it’s hard to capture a city that is constantly reinventing itself, a city always Under Construction, but Dasgupta has the skills and vision to pull it off.

The classic, iconic Delhi novel was evoked by Dalrymple in his reading—Ahmad Ali never published another book after Twilight in Delhi, and was an unhappy exile who felt himself neglected in Lahore. But he refused to come back to Delhi, because his city—the city of his past, and the city of his imagination—no longer existed for him. He didn’t want to see what it had become.

In the Delhi of the 1980s, bahurupiyas could still be found in the Old City. A bahurupiya is, literally, a person of many faces, an inhabitant of many avatars. Most bahurupiyas stuck to imitating the gods and goddesses—more money in that—but sometimes, they also commented, behind their shifting masks, on the political scandals and struggles of the day. In the Delhi of 2010, there are few practicing bahurupiyas left, but few images capture this city better. It’s a trickster city, a shapeshifter, occupying many versions of itself at any given point of time—and it may finally be finding its chroniclers.

7 comments

  1. Nilanjana,I think the lament about the Delhi novel is misplaced. It is repeated often and comes from not recognizing a lot of writing that has interacted with and helped construct the idea of Delhi. Perhaps this stuff is not as popular as the great New York books, nor as hyped as Maximum City, but it is substantial.For example, you seem to have missed out on Manju Kapur's work. Not to mention less cited efforts to chronicle Delhi like Selina Sen's A Mirror Greens in Spring or Anjana Appachana's Listening Now. A little more from left field but definitely Delhi novels would be Jet City Woman by Ankush Saikia (the central population being North Easterners in Delhi, a very significant population, also see Mamang Dai's recent Stupid Cupid). Another genre that has taken off is chicklit. Advaita Kala's Almost Single is nothing without the Delhi at its centre, it couldn't have been set in Bombay. My own Above Average devotes considerable space to "claiming a neighborhood", Mayur Vihar, before moving on into the IIT setting which is not a general IIT setting but specifically an IIT Delhi setting. Upamanyu Chatterjee's Mammaries of a Welfare State is an important but neglected work which is set in a city that is recognizably Delhi. Akhil Sharma's brutal and brutalizing masterpiece, An Obedient Father, is explicitly set in Delhi. Perhaps one of the most important works of Indian English writing that very few people managed to read to the end, one that no one talks about. And, of course, Khushwant Singh's Delhi, to my mind, is one of the finest works written about Delhi. He is the only fiction writer who has face up to the 1984 riots, to that blot on our city that refuses to go away (and should never be forgotten.) I have respect for William Dalrymple's work and for Ahmed Ali, but Khushwant Singh's Delhi is far superior to those. And, leaving all these in its dust, a book that deserves its own paragraph even in a reply to a blog post, a four square iconic Delhi novel you haven't mentioned is Dil-o-Danish by Krishna Sobti, (translated in English as The Heart Has It's Reasons). Dil-o-Danish is a work of such humanist brilliance that anyone who has ever lived in Delhi can stand up proudly and say to the votary of any other city that Delhi is the setting and subject for one of the finest novels ever written. Amitabha

  2. Anon and Amitabha,Thanks for this, and I'm attaching a 2006 list of Delhi books I'd compiled for Outlook–you'll find many of your recommendations there, including Altu Faltu, Khushwant and Sobti.Amitabha, I'd still say Delhi doesn't get the literary attention it deserves as a subject; not that it's absent from the literary map. It's the New York-Washington novel debate for me, in many ways. But lovely to see you here, and thanks for your comments.

  3. P.S. The reading list is up at http://akhondofswat.blogspot.com/2010/03/delhi-reading-list.html. It doesn't include anything from the last four years, and is indicative, not exhaustive, but I hope you'll enjoy it.Amitabha, I admire Akhil's work, but I remember not including An Obedient Father in that list because it wasn't a "Delhi novel"–Delhi was just the setting. He got key details about the 1984 riots wrong, which was something of a flaw in an otherwise impressive first novel.

  4. Hi Nilanjana,Thanks for your reply.Ranjana Sengupta's 2002 piece published in Seminar is a great early survey of writing about Delhi. She ends by saying:"Delhi has thus been immortalised in many avatars and I have omitted for lack of space, the accounts of its political history – the Emergency, the 1984 riots and the recorded musings of its leaders. But despite this vast quantity and usually high quality of writing on Delhi, the terrain is still patchily illuminated. There are still huge swathes of darkness where brave explorers need to go."The reference is http://www.india-seminar.com/2002/515/515%20ranjana%20sengupta.htmTime Out had done a special issue on books about Delhi some time ago. In that I had also written something in which I tried to take Ranjana Sengupta's idea a little further, concluding that:"With the unfolding of a multiplicity of stories, the danger that some writer will try to hoodwink readers by capturing Delhi in a twelve-hundred-page volume is receding. The definitive book about a great city cannot be a book. It must always be a library. And a great city is one whose writers instinctively understand this."That piece can be read at:http://www.aboveaveragebook.com/Other_desc.php?id=9I'm wary of books that "write the city". I think that's a bogus project. And as far as Washington DC is concerned, firstly there are people like Dinaw Mengestu who are trying to fill that gap, and secondly the way DC works is totally different from Delhi. Delhi's proportion of transients is far fewer than DCs. So I am not sure that the analogy applies here.Best,Amitabha

  5. I agree that some of the facts in Akhil Sharma's book may have been off. But Ram Karan is a character who belongs unmistakeably to Delhi. The truth of his character, to my mind, overrules factual problems.Amitabha

  6. It's always a library, isn't it? I have a mental "London" library, a "New York" library, a "Lucknow" and a "Calcutta" library. And for a writer, I agree that it would be a mistake to start by trying to "write the city"–Selfconscious Prose Central.But if you look at the "Delhi library" through not just this century but previous ones, many of its chroniclers have been travellers and expats, transients and temporary citizens–as you might expect to some extent for a city with such a constantly shifting population. I think we're likely to disagree on this, but I am often disappointed by the relatively tiny shelf of contemporary fiction or poetry on Delhi. The Washington analogy makes a lot of sense when you look at Nayantara Sahgal's work–she's one of the few writers who's tried to capture Delhi as a political capital, fairly successfully. The two cities have similarities; they're primarily administrative capitals, and for several decades, I think that eclipsed the other Delhis–the historical city, the migrant city, the tensions and the energies of different groups of people colliding and being forced to find some way of living together. I still don't see a robust, continuous body of work from Delhi writers. But there are lovely flashes of brilliance–if you haven't come across her already, I'd recommend Vandana Singh's Delhi short story–here's an excerpt. http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2005/03/indian-speculative-fiction-writer.html

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