+Penguin Books UK
Delhi A novel starts with the protagonist, A Sikh Journalist, returning to Delhi from abroad. He is loafing around, visiting his cronies in Coffee House, going around the city when he is asked to escort around a woman who has come down from London. She has to look over the architecture of Delhi. Our hero almost has an affair with her.
However, his one enduring affair is with Bhagmati, a hijra whom he had once saved when she had fainted by the side of the road. Once on a visit to Shamsi Talab, he comes across a stone inscribed with the name of Musaddi Lal, devotee of Nizamuddin and resident in the era of Balban. In the next chapter, we zoom into the life of Musaddi Lal in 1280 and thereabouts. Musaddi Lal was a kayasth whose father was a scribe in the court of Balban. When his father died, he was offered the same job. He became a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin and hobnobbed with Amir Khusrau as well. The life in that era is described beautifully with Musaddi Lal as the narrator.
From here the novel takes turns describing successive eras (with big jumps in time - it would have become a huge tome otherwise) and coming back to present time (which is somewhere from 1970's to 1984). From Balban we jump to a first hand account of the massacre led by Taimur. Then comes the very touching story of Jaitoo, the Mazhabi Sikh who had the sorrowful privilege of carrying the sheesh of Guru Tegh Bahadur to Anandpur Sahib after he was executed by Aurangzeb. Through the eyes of Jaitoo, we learn how life was like amongst the very poor during the reign of Mughals.
After this comes an account from the pen of Aurangzeb Alamgir himself. How he found himself sidelined by his father who favored Dara Shukoh. How he tricked and killed his brother and landed himself on the throne of Delhi. Nadir Shah relates how he came to Delhi and was captivated by a concubine.
Mir Taqi Mir lived from 1722 to 1810. He tasted everlasting fame, but had to live in penury for most of his life, like many other great artists did. The chapter where Mir describes his life and time is one of the best in this novel. It sheds light not only on the life of Mir, but also the tumultuous times he lived in.
From Mir we go on to the events of 1857 which are described through the eyes of Alice Aldwell. She was the daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim girl and an Englishman. She shed her Anglo-Indian identity by marrying a 50 year old Englishman Aldwell. She has to scrimp and scrounge to crawl up in the English world. Just when she has made it, the mutiny breaks out. The English identity that she had built up so painstakingly is now shattered. Along with Alice Aldwell's account, we are also treated to the views of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the Mutiny. We also go on to read about Nihal Singh, the Sikh orderly under the command of Major Hodson.
In the next historical segment we get a glimpse into the building of the Lutyen's Delhi. For this who can be better than an eyewitness in the author's own family. His father was at the forefront of action when Delhi was named, for the final time, the Capital of India. To the author's credit, he spares no criticism, even of his own forebears and gives us a candid account of the way contracts were handed out. How his father and grandfather maintained contacts, bribed, presented inflated bills and made a lot of money. He also lauds them for their thrift and hard work that was also necessary.
The last historical chapter is about Ram Rakha, who becomes an RSS activist in Delhi for the lack of any other employment. He has to instigate violence against Muslims in 1947-48. He is also required to spy on Mahatma Gandhi as he fasts.
From the dark times of 1947 we jump to 1984. Starting from Operation Blue Star in June to the Sikh Massacre in November, when humankind showed that it was not civilized yet.
The book does a very good job of traversing through 700 years of history of Delhi. The best part is, of course, describing the events through the eyes of a contemporary. I like the accounts of ordinary citizens much better. In the story of Musaddi Lal, he does not like Amir Khusro initially. Older and mellower years later, they become good friends. In the later story of Jaitu the untouchable, we are given a piteous account of how they live. After he carries the head of Guru to Anandpur Sahib he is known as Rangreta Jaita.
The author does a very good job of getting into the skin of the characters and makes the era they lived in come alive. He lets the warts of his characters show, be they Kings, Commoners or Poets. Bhagmati, the hijra the main protagonist is enamored of, is the emblem of corruption that Delhi has sunk into. There is even a story in the book, in the form of a joke that foretold that hijras would inherit Hindustan in the year 1947.
Khushwant Singh claims that he spent twenty-five years writing this book. I can imagine the research it entailed. I remember reading an extract from the book that was published in a magazine. It was about Nadir Shah and his tryst with Noor, the concubine. Typically the focus in the press was on the salacious bits of the book. When I read the book first about a decade ago, I was very impressed. I liked the juxtaposition of modern and ancient times. I liked the way he does not mince words when indicting the actions of people throughout history, whether they were Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians. They were merely frail humans who wronged each other grievously.
In general I am not fond of Khushwant Singh's books. He claims to be irreverent, and that is a good thing, but the substance of his books was rather thin. But with Delhi A Novel, he has come up trumps because his subject is so sound.