Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Delhi - Khushwant Singh

This is one of those very few books I have marked for a second reading.

It took the author 20 years to write this book and I think I know why.

It is a story of Delhi.
But a story told like never before.
Actually, a story never told before.

I say this because the history that you discover in this book is unlike anything that you have come across in history textbooks before. It is history told not by those curious travelers who enquired into the past but by those who were responsible for making history themselves.
Taimur Lung, Nadir Shah, Aurangzeb, Meer Taqi Meer(a poet), Bahadur Shah Zafar, Alice Gladwell and others narrate their stories in first person.

As you read …..”I, the emperor of Hindustan, swear by the name of Allah that all that I say is truth and nothing but the complete truth”….. the ring of this opening line gives credibility to the rest of the story that follows…

A lot of time and effort must have been spent in reaching the right sources and that’s why it took the authors 20 long years!

Of all the tales of cities in this world, the tale of Delhi has got to be the most tragic one. A city that was raised to the skies and razed to the ground a thousand times over.

As I read the book I became attached to the city that came alive before my eyes.

The story begins with one of the Mughal emperors, spans six to seven hundred years and ends with the 1984 Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
All episodes of the past are interspersed with a continuous thread of the present – this thread of present, being the story of the narrator himself – a commoner, an unscrupulous tour guide working in the embassy and indulging his libido in anybody and everybody beginning from a local hermaphrodite or a Hijda, right up to his foreign tourists.

The narrator loves his city and his love stems not from the prevailing condition of the city but from knowing the story of the city very well and all that the city has endured.

As the narrator guides his friends and acquaintances through the ruins of the past that lay strewn all over the historic city… tombs, memorials, Durgahs and monuments… he is transported to a past time. As he rests against this pillar or that wall, he replays in his mind a battle that was fought here or a king that was slain there…and thus, an episode of the past unfolds…

“…Shah Jahan was not as Zalim as his fathers had been. Although he had killed his brother’s families when he came to the throne, he did not hurt any one else. But just like his father, grandfather and great grand fathers, he also liked women. His favourite was a queen whom he kept pregnant from the day he married her. In the 14 years they were married, she had 14 sons and daughters. She couldn’t take anymore and died giving birth to her 14th child. The badshah was so sad he decided to build the biggest and the most beautiful grave over her body. Taj Mahal…”

“…Many people lived both Hindu and Muslim lives. They had two names, one Hindu and one Muslim, they celebrated both festivals etc, to save their lives and they were held in contempt by both religions and societies for being neither here nor there…”

“…As if he had not had his fill of blood after destroying the infidels, temples, idols, etc... Aurangzeb in his deathbed expresses deep regret about not having destroyed completely, the Marathas, the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs…”

…Delhi is said to have become like a living skeleton…

Burnt in flames till every building was reduced to ashes
How fair a city was the heart that love put to the fire!

…I make a vow that as long as I live, I will never come this way again. Delhi is a city where dust drifts in deserted lanes; in days gone by in this very city, a man could fill his lap with gold…

I was reminded of a line from Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred years of Solitude”. You could replace the word “family” with the word “Delhi” and the statement would be as true.

The history of Delhi is a wheel of endless repetitions that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.

It is that part of history which hurts as you read, which brings your blood to a boil...
The savages from Mongol, Turk, Samarkhand who plundered, pillaged and looted Hindustan...The period of Mughal rule where people were unhappiest…
Now I understand why Indians welcomed the British who overthrew the Mughals.

I can identify with the narrator when he says “I would have shot the lame bastard (Taimur Lung) dead, I would have slaughtered the Mongols, Turks, Tartars and other central Asian savages and sent them screaming back to Samarkhand”.

The first few pages are distasteful as they are full of references to rustic uncouth people lacking finesse, their filthy ways, filthy language, illicit sex etc. that the city of Delhi has a preponderance of, at least at a superficial level.

I don’t understand why the narrator in first person had to assume the character of a loathsome guide laying every other woman he came across…why could not the narrator be a tourist, a decent guide or a dweller of the city who was simply attached to the city?
The dirty pages that fill half the book make the reading annoying…what with vivid descriptions of the hijda giving pleasures to the narrator… The novel would have been much better if these pages had been filled something else (anything else). It does not even titillate you with its third class characters conversing in real bad language.
Having read three of his works, I don’t understand the author’s preoccupation/obsession with sex.

This author has an unbelievable capacity for unsavoury, distasteful writing. One whole chapter is devoted to intestinal wind.

This is the most distasteful/unsavoury thing I have ever read. Yuck! He has expounded on categories and classifications of wind… the attitude of different nations and people towards it. I don’t know how the author could face his relatives, kith and kin and his friends after the book was published.

I made note of the following as I read….some facts….some thoughts… My usual habit… :-)

“Tilpat – Legend has it that it was one of Pandava’s five villages…”

“…The Yamuna is only a fraction less holy than the Ganga! She is Sarjuga, Daughter of the Sun; she is also Triyama, sister of Yama the ruler of the dead. And since she was born on Mount Kalinda, she has yet another name, Kalinda Nandini, daughter of the black mountain. The Vedas were washed up by it’s flood, Krishna bathed in her waters…”

“New Delhi was previously known as Raisina…”

“…Nature provides that a man who slaves all day should spend the hours of night in a palace full of houris, whereas a king who wield the scepter by day should have his sleep disturbed by nightmares of rebellion and assassination. Thus does allah dispense justice. To one man, he gives pleasure by day misery by night; to another he gives travail from sunrise to sunset, the joys of paradise from sunset to sunrise…”

“The better part of generosity is speedy giving…”

This book is a must read.


Anonymous said...

I so need to get this book. It's either really expensive here in the UK or impossible to get. It would be interesting to read as I am writing the first English biography of Mir. Khushwant Singh is one of the best Indian writers. Though he has turned my Mir into a bit of a dandy without a jot of historical evidence. I know that it is, after all a work of fiction and therein lies the rub. Some stupid academics have taken Mir's character to be a reflection of his actual historical persona - It is not so. Their views are merely a reflection of their own repressed egos.

Sowmya said...

Welcome Rehan.

Its my honour to have an author visiting my blog and leaving me a comment.

I am impressed to know you are writing a biography. I love history too.

I think you should try ordering the book Delhi online. If you like history, you must read this book. It took the author 20 years to write this book. so you know how much research has gone into it's making...

Have you herd of Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization"?

More later...

Rehan Qayoom said...

Will Durant's 'The Story of Civilization' sounds like a fascinating work.

I eventually managed to get a copy of DELHI - A Novel. An absolutely staggering work of great repute. Although I believe Khushwant Singh could have halved the book. By the last third of the book the narrative becomes disjointed and not half as engaging as the first half. Nevertheless, a great novel. I found only one factual error.

Sowmya said...

Hi Rehan,

'The Story of Civilization' is an outstanding work I have heard. 11 volumes, each volume the size of Oxford English Dictionary! I would be interested in the first volume "Our Oriental Heritage" which is about India mostly and the East in general. But its difficult to procure just one volume :( I will be grateful to you if you can somehow get me the first volume :)

Good to know you read Delhi. And what is the factual error?