I always believe that places reveal very little to us when we are not interested in them; but open up for those of us who are interested. In other words, it is not only that we choose a place, but the place also chooses us.
I have chosen Delhi as ‘my place’ for last couple of years and I always wonder whether Delhi has accepted me or not. Some signals are positive and some are neutral. After visiting many ‘spots’ and ‘sites’ and crossing the road at least 500 times; after experience the fog and the burning summer, I am still clueless about Delhi. Not only about its past; about its future; but also about its present.
How is Delhi?
It is beautiful and ugly. It is enthusiastic and depressive. It is aggressive and tolerant. It is filthy rich and extremely poor. It is cultured and vulgar. It is supersonic and slow. It is religious and mundane. It is lazy and consumerist. It is flowing and it is stagnated. It is in 21st century and also in 16th century. All these ‘Delhis’ coexist, hand in hand. Every time I experience it, it is different. Delhi by all means is a mystery.
Frankly speaking, Khushwant Singh is not my favorite writer. It was only after strong recommendation by one of my young friends that I touched the novel Delhi. However, I was stunned by the first paragraph itself. The narrator compares Delhi to his mistress. He says, “Delhi and Bhagmati (narrator’s mistress) have a lot in common. Having been long misused by rough people they have learnt to conceal their seductive charms under a mask of repulsive ugliness. It is only to their lovers, among whom I count myself, that they reveal their true selves.”
So true, I felt – though I did not know about Bhagmati, I certainly knew that much about Delhi.
The principle narrator of the novel is a man. He is a Sikh. He visits foreign countries and works as a guide for foreign tourist. Through them he narrates material richness of Delhi and through Bhgamati, he shows us the poor, the vulnerable. Both enrich Delhi’s personality.
The narrator takes the readers to various places and its history. That is a fantastic journey. Places like Nigambodh Ghat, Tilpat, Suraj Kund, Okhla, Qutub Minar, Hauz Khas, Purana Quila, Red Fort… and so many others! Delhi comes alive through the narration.
What I enjoyed most is the history of Hajarat Nizamuddin – who so far was just a name of Railway Station for me. The life of this Sufi Saint is indeed inspiring. “Kings come and kings go. The will of Allah is eternal” – the words of Nizamuddin ring so true even today. So, is the story of Rakab Ganj Gurudwara. I am sure, when I visit both these places, I will have a better understanding of those and hence a far meaningful relationship with those two places. Other readers will find more such places to get the connection. The strength of the book lies in these kinds of narrations. There might be more fiction than the truth even in these narrations, but the truth that appears is blazing. One understands that Delhi has lived more life than we can imagine, Delhi has experienced more pain than one can endure and Delhi has seen so many power shifts that she hardly is affected by any power.
There are some interesting mythological stories (though not in details) spread across the pages. For example the names of the five villages that Pandavas are believed to have asked for to avoid war; how Balarama made river Yamuna zigzag. That was something which I did not know. Now I have more questions and I will seek more light on these mythological aspects as well.
His remarks on contemporary Delhi are also fascinating. For example the custom inspector, the cab driver, the crowd gathered to watch foreigner lady, the diplomatic office circle in Delhi, Republic Day Parade atmosphere.. .. Hilarious; and painful at the same time.
Being a Khushwant Singh novel, there are many women and sexual descriptions run parallel to journey of Delhi. This is one more example where an author is not able to break his image. But his story of Delhi is so interesting that it did not stop me from reading the novel.
And the human face of Khushwant Singh, the author makes a strong appearance through the pages. In Chapter 18, the narrator talks about ‘Builders’ – a narration spread over 30 pages. The narrator of this chapter is a contractor of Lutyens' Delhi. The contractor is none else but father of Khushwant Singh – Sobha Singh!! The author who cannot write without sex even when he is describing the life of Hajarat Nizamuddin or while a young man is watching Gandhijee’s prayer his mind thinks about Dr. Sushila in no less vulgar terms. But it only when the author is narrating the story of his real father, he abstains from any mention to sexuality. This only shows that one thinks about ‘our own people’ in a different way !!
If you know when and how to ignore Khushwant Singh, this book makes one of the best reads. If you allow the author to irritate you, you will certainly not enjoy the book. However, with his knowledge of the city and the history of the city and the command on the language, I would recommend that Delhi is worth reading! It is an interesting perspective about Delhi.
Delhi- a novel: Khushwant Singh
Penguin Books, India
Price: Rs. 250/- (paperback)