(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.