Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Thoughts after reading Delhi, A Novel by Khushwant Singh

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 piss and shit (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 farts 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, fart;/ For the wind in the stomach is like a stone on the heart." With Kushwant Singh, even fart 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).


Vivek Sharma said...

Quotable quotes about Delhi from its poets:

Vivek Sharma said...

Comments from

August 18, 2009
01:15 PM


good review

khushwant has become a recluse of sorts...must try and meet up with him next time in delhi

ps: the bold is kind of grating on the eyes

Deepa Krishnan
August 19, 2009
02:10 AM

Frankly, I don't see why you need prurient descriptions of unusual sexual acts with a eunuch to write about Delhi. Khushwant loves to get sordid, it is his hallmark. I'm no prude, but he is 'ugh' in the extreme, makes me feel like I came into contact with soiled underwear.

Vivek Sharma
August 19, 2009
09:10 AM

Khushwant's weird choice of romance with the enunch in this novel really hurts the novel as a whole. As I said in the review, the parts where other narratives unfold are almost glorious in construction. I want to go and ask Khushwant Singh: Why did you do this all your life: say the wisest thing first, and then start pretending that you are a prankster?

On the other hand, I guess we are too used to the sanitized writings. India is full of smells, sights and sounds that are underrepresented in literature. The grotesque can be used to show certain characteristics of a nation or a city as well. I think Khushwant Singh wrote this novel after he was asked to leave Hindustan Times. He had his revenge maybe by leaving us with a soiled portrait of the city. If you can, put a handkerchief over your nose, and marvel at the bits in this book that deserve endless reading and rereading.

@ Temporal: I grew up in Kasauli, and would often see him walk by. I used to write verses back then as well, and would begin to daydream about showing him some. I had hoped that my collection of poems will form the perfect excuse of meeting him during my visit to India in summer; but the publication is delayed, and so is plan. He is very punctual, very perspective. He has seen a lot: he drove from Lahore to Kasauli to escape the mobs during partition. I hope you will get to see him, and I hope you'll write about it.

Vivek Sharma said...

More from

August 19, 2009
09:59 AM

Nice review. I agree with Deepa, the eunuch angle and the grotesque sex was extremely repulsive. Never thought of it as method to depict the squalor and filth of the city, interesting angle. Though being first right-brained when I read something, I was quite repulsed by it.

But I have to say, despite those distractions, I found the book to be brilliant. Being a Delhite, the history of Delhi holds immediate relevance for me. After William Dalryample's 'City of Djinns', this is the best book on Delhi I have read. Actually I would put them at the same level but Dalrymple's account is more exploratory, quite like an Enid Blyton making it a perfect candidate for a repeat read.

I think what stands out in Khushwant Singh's approach is that he chooses to narrate the story of Delhi from the angle of those forgotten or those condemned by it. It is common knowledge that history is written by the victors and the vanquished always get painted in black. That is accepted truth. KS digs out the long buried whites behind that black makes it a wonderfully shaded account of city.

We see the point of view of Aurangzeb of Nadir Shah, we get to read a lot of fine-print of history that traditional accounts have wiped out over the years. I find this 'view from the other side' very fascinating and this what elevates the book in my eyes.

Amitabh Mitra
August 19, 2009
11:31 AM

I agree with Temporal

The bold gives a foreign body feel to the eyes

Delhi belongs to Kushwant Singh Sahab as much as he belongs to it and all of us.

Prime properties in Connaught Place once belonged to Kushwantji and his father.

I remember him when he came to visit me in 1985 at our high altitude hospital in Bhutan

What do you do here?

I write poetry, Sir

I am sure this has something to do with so many beautiful ladies here, Kushwantji murmured in a faraway voice while sipping his whisky.

I think Sir, it is the influence of His Majesty that everything here is just poetry

I was in his columns the next week, 'With malice towards one and all'

One of his close friends, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck soon afterwards dropped in to listen to my poetry.

The same year I received the national Druk Namgyal award by Royal Government of Bhutan for work in 'High Altitude Areas under Adverse Conditions'



Vivek Sharma
August 20, 2009
04:08 PM

Delhi and Khushwant Singh are both fascinating, old, ageless wonders for me. Yes Ritu and Deepa, I hate Khushwant Singh for putting these passages into the story that seem to add nothing but squalor and filth to the book: but that is his signature style, and that is his way of ensuring that we remember the real city has a lot of dark alleys and red light districts in it.

Ritu: So many people want me to read City of Djinns that I was smiling when I read your comment. I have "The Last Moghul" on my shelf and I will read it soon. Before returning to another book in India, I am off to reading at least half a dozen books set in other countries: but will remember your suggestion.

Mitra ji and Temporal: Please ask the editors to change bold sentences to regular ones (I made this change to the repost that appears on my personal blog).

Amitabh: It is great how such a memory lingers in your mind years after it first happened. I have had pleasure of conversing with several poets in US, and every anecdote is special. But I envy you, for I have always desired to meet Khushwant Singh ji and find a well-deserved mention in his column. I have made slow progress towards that goal, and I hope the dream is realized some day.

Amitabh Mitra
August 21, 2009
04:56 AM

That had been one of the greatest moments in my life
I still remember it vividly

Thanks Vivek

Anonymous said...

Hi Vivek
You have wriiten a gud review...
I think that Bhagmati stands for Delhi in this novel.. and the way people( mainly kings) across centuries have misused squandering its wealth and by inflicting violence on its citizens..

job said...


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