The novel Delhi penned by Khushwant Singh is a story that spans both the grandeur and squalor of the city that it seeks to uncover through a perverse romance. A city that has witnessed at least seven rounds of complete destruction and reconstruction, Delhi, the capital of India, is a city of culture and calamity, of conceit and capability, of poets and pests, of politicians and saints. To capture the manifest and unmanifest faces of Delhi requires a canvas that delights and nauseates in equal measure. Perhaps Khushwant Singh knew of this aspect of his beloved city, when he created a bawdy, old, reprobate protagonist, in love with a hijra (enunch) whore, as the person seeking to describe his love-hate relationship with that whore and this city. While the principal narrator busies himself with unusual sexual acts with his half-man, half-woman partner Bhagmati, he also allows himself pleasures with foreign and native beauties, all leading him into another fold, another fleshy nook, to his conquests another tale. This romance fades to backdrop as the narrator discovers the legends that lurk in various streets, forts, abandoned palaces, embankments, towers, temples, mosques, gurudwaras, memorials, burial grounds and coffee houses of the city.
The greatest delight in the novel, lies in reading about Timur, Mir Taqi, Nadir Shah, Hazrat Kaki, Nizamuddin, Bahadur Shah Zafar & Moghuls, Tuglaks, Lodhis, First War of Indian Independence (or The Sepoy Mutiny), emperors, temptresses, poets, saints, Sikhs who helped British win in 1857, bodies burning on banks of Yamuna, Englishmen, builders of New Delhi, Aurangzeb, neo-converts to Islam or Sikhism, Khusrau, assassins of Indira and mobs who rioted after partition and after Indira's assassination and Mahatma Gandhi. The most captivating details of this novel tell us about these innumerable people who lend their blood, their faith, their best and worst aspirations and actions to provide that special character, mystery, mystique to Delhi. The novel is an ode by a Delhi's son to his fascination with undying and relentless, razed and raging, crazed and craving, old and ageless, brutal and brave, buried and slaved, free and frayed, remorseless and mourning, Hindu, Islamic, Sikh and in equal measure sufi and atheist soul or spirit of Delhi.
The narrative is at its best when Aurangzeb, Nadir Shah, Sikh fighter of 1857 war, Zafar, a refugee who wants to avenge deaths of his family members, or Mir Taqi Mir describe their lives and their times: for writing these pieces alone, Khushwant Singh deserves a permanent place in the literary tradition of India and the World. These characters, chosen from several generations of possibilities, speak with a honesty characteristic of Khushwant's writing: the wanton is as omnipresent as is the sacrosanct. There are many verses from major poets (including Mir and Zafar) that appear in translation. It was Mir who once said: "Dil ki basti bhi shehar dilli hai/ Jo bhi guzra usi ne loota." (Delhi alone is a city of love; all those that have passed through have looted it). While Ghalib is not mentioned outright as a narrator, his times are described quite well as he was contemporary of Zafar, and befittingly, the novel starts with an epigram from Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib: "I asked my soul: What is Delhi?/ She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life."
For anyone who has lived in India between 1970 and now, the name Khushwant Singh brings memories of his Santa-Banta jokes and his weekly column that appears in most newspapers, with a caricature of him sitting in a light bulb. In those columns as well as here, Khushwant always succeeds in telling us a good story, occasionally writing lines that are exquisite, occasionally saying things that are offensive to many or just seem like an injustice to the caliber that this grand old man of letters definitely has. To love and discover Delhi, one must learn to ignore its smell of pi*ss and sh*it (New York these days has plenty of that), ignore its hostile, acerbic reception to guests and visitors, ignore its age, bitterness, immensity and obscenity. To read Khushwant Singh, one must learn to ignore the trivia and trivial, that comes packaged with the historical and memorable writing. The notoriety of the writer, in this case, must not stop us from savoring fantastic details about Mehrauli, Hauz Khas, Nizamuddin and Red Fort, among others. For example, do you know the name of five villages that Pandavas asked for after their exile? Do you know who built Hauz Khas? Do you know who saved the British army from total annihilation in Delhi and why? In equal measure, do you know how many types of f*rts are there and how they must be classified? Khushwant Singh quotes many lines from Saadi, including "O Sage ! the stomach is prison house of wind,/ the sagacious contain it not in captivity,/ if the wind torment thay belly, release it, f*rt;/ For the wind in the stomach is like a stone on the heart." With Kushwant Singh, even a f*rt is art!
After reading Train to Pakistan and Delhi, I have become increasingly convinced that Mr. Singh is our man for the future: he will be seen as the painter whose canvas is populated with the bylanes and backdoors that whisper realistic details about people and times, that most of his contemporary authors fail to touch or write about. He writes without bothering to explain things to non-Indians, so foreigners will need to work harder to read him, but since he writes about people, politics and religion, issues that are and will remain important to every inhabitant of Delhi, Punjab and India, his writings will redeem him in eyes of one and all. This man in the lightbulb, this lightbulb, who was born in 1915, has translated a lot of great poets from Punjabi and Urdu into English, has written about history of Sikhism and Ranjit Singh, and yes, he has also written about Sex and Scotch with unfailing enthusiasm. He has known every major Indian writer of twentieth century, and outlived most of them, to tell these tales, and when he speaks, we grandchildren can only wonder, how he knows all these details.
If India is a land of unresolved contradictions and organized chaos at work, Delhi is befitting as its capital. The soil of Delhi boasts of sweat and blood of at least twenty six centuries, starting with Indraprasta, as mentioned in Mahabharata, (though earliest archeological remains are, I believe, from the sixth century BC), to the current city that has well over twenty million inhabitants. Khushwant Singh's novel is laced with details about history and monuments of Delhi that take the reader through the familiar names and lanes, providing meaning and mannerism to rocks, stones, bricks, and ghosts from a bygone era. The dead and alive live in harmony in this city, the palaces turn to wilderness and wilderness to townships in manner of few centuries. The dominant Gods change, the language and the tongues change, the spices and kitchens invent new flavors and aromas, and all that appears or disappears, stays as a memory or as song, in dust or in verse, through arts and crafts that traveled out of that time and place. The temples were destroyed to create mosques, mosques razed to create ruins, ruins restored into housing colonies, housing colonies for refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Pandits from Kashmir. Roads raised over remains of slums, slums planted over public gardens, parks overgrown over unclaimed or reclaimed lands. In such a city, Khushwant Singh's characters receive their share of history by breathing the air that stinks of history and rage, that seduces with mango flavors and rum punches. In this history, they seek their own woes and pleasures.
A city revealed, is a personality understood: it is the relationship with Delhi, that defines the character of a Delhiwallah, the protagonist of the novel, the writer as well as the reader who wanders through a fifteen hundred square kilometer landmass with a population density of ten thousand per square kilometer. Delhi air is packed with centuries of whispers; Khushwant packs many interesting ones into this novel. Read it for Mir, read it for Zafar, Nadir Shah, Timur, Khawaja, Mahatma, and for knowing about crazed Budh Singh, who dies a crazed death at the hands of mob in 1980s. Read the novel to gaze and grapple with the treacherous, bloody, voluptuous, insatiable, inexhaustible, adventurous, amorous, pompous, powerful, poetic, prosaic, potent & impotent, passive and purgative, lurid and lucrative avatars of Delhi, of Delhiwallahs, of Indians, of ourselves.
Let me end this review by lines written by quoting a few poets. First Ghalib and Zauq, who said these verses around the same time; Ghalib: "Hai ab is maamure mein, qaht-e-gham-e-ulfat 'Asad'/Hamne maana rahen Dilli mein, par khaayenge kya?" (There is now in this town a famine of the grief of love, Asad/ We've agreed that we would remain in Delhi-- what will we eat?) & Zauq: "Kaun jaaye Zauq par, Dilli ki Galiyan chhod kar" (Who would quit the lanes of Delhi, Zauq and suffer exile?). But again, let us end with Mir, "Dil va Dilli dono agar hai kharaab/ Par kuch lutf us ujde ghar mein bhi hain" ((Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out/ But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house).