Delhi: A Novel by Khushwant Singh tells the story of development of the city of Delhi over a period of more than six hundred years. It touches upon different events which factored into shaping the city into what it is today. It talks of people who came to Delhi as plunderers or came and settled here as conquerors. It talks of the lives of common people who got affected in various ways due to these foreigners. While these developments are talked about in the novel through various semi-fictional characters, there runs the story of the narrator and a eunuch, Bhagmati in the backdrop.
The novel opens with the narrator returning from England after he had his “fill of whoring in foreign land” (p. 1). And then there is a description of the love-hate relationship between the narrator and the city which goes on. On one hand, he gets confounded by the power cut, delays at the airports, being gouged by cab-drivers, no water supplies and a plethora of other issues and on the other, the cool and fragrant morning breeze brings back his love for the city.
There are many insights about the development of the city over the period of time. Historical events play a significant role in development of the city. During the reign of Ghiasuddin Balban, Mehrauli used to be a different village from Ghasipur (around the Nizamuddin area) and the distance between two was covered with villages which were inhabited by robbers. It was because of the fact that Saint Nizamuddin Khwaja lived in a hospice in Ghasipur, the area became famous and still holds significance. At present the entire length between the two areas is a part of the city. Similarly, the walled city of Delhi or Shahjahanbad, as it was called, was built during the period of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan when he decided to shift his capital to Delhi.
Apart from the historical reasons which led to the development of the city, there has been a lot of natural growth which the city has seen post independence. Just after independence, Patel Nagar used to be a suburb and it was only near the suburbs of Patel Nagar that the narrator finds Bhagmati. Similarly, areas like Okhla, Badarpur and Mehrauli were distant villages with no influence of urbanization. In fact, one could even find snakes in Okhla.
The city has been changing continuously. As the narrator recalls his childhood days, he compares and contrasts what he sees in Delhi when he is in his youth. During his childhood, “there were herds of bull and wild pig within a mile of the city walls. Tigers were seen on the Ridge behind Rashtrapati Bhawan” (p. 18). He blames it to the hunters for the depletion of wildlife around the city.
Through Bhagmati, the author has tried to show the social position of eunuchs. The relationship of the narrator with Bhagmati is looked with contempt. When the narrator takes her to his apartment for the first time, he does it furtively. And this relation becomes a matter for ridicule and joke for people around him including his friends and the guard of his apartment. This kind of inimical behavior towards the hijdas is prevalent in the society since long which is very evident when Ram Dulari, the wife of Musaddi Lal, a character from the Sultanate period says, “Let our enemies be hijdas” (p. 71). Bhagmati and the other eunuchs live in a secluded locality called Lal Kuan. However, the silver lining is that though the eunuchs are treated as social outcasts, inside their own localities, they live a life of their own which is complete and self sufficient in itself. Though Baghmati cannot bear children, she has a husband and co-wives who take care of her during sickness and at times of need. Moreover, as the eunuchs are treated as social pariahs, they achieve some sort of immunity from whatever happens in the world outside. This is evident when Bhagmati tries to save the life of the narrator and asks him to come to Lal Kuan with her. She is sure to be safe on her way as she knows that “Nobody will bend a hair on hijda’s head” (p. 387).
There is a good sense of insight about the building of the city through the experiences of builders. There are instances which show how the officers in the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) are bribed by contractors to get the building contract. There is a description about the builders’ and contractors’ community, which majorly constituted of Sikhs who came to Delhi from Punjab and adjoining areas. The contractors form a community by the virtue of sharing the same profession and develop cordial ties among themselves.
There is a lot of praise which the author offers to the British town planner Lutyens. He calls him “a man of vision” (p. 326). Lutyens proposed the idea of planning trees on the sides of roads. A huge nursery was set up to cultivate different kinds of saplings. There were plants which were imported from Africa. As the author says Lutyens was a man who “talked of designing a city which would meet the needs of its citizens for two hundred years” (p.326).
The book also underscores the unscrupulous practices the contractors and builders were involved in. A half of dozen of Sikh contractors had built their houses on the Jantar Mantar Road. They used to cheat and build mansions for themselves. “One of them who got the contract for the supply of stone and marble built himself a palatial mansion of stone and marble bigger than any private residence in Delhi (p.334)”. The one who was not doing half as well “acquired two cars” (p.334). However, this practice was prevalent since old times. Talking of the builders of the old Qutab Minar, the narrator says “it was obvious they had stolen a lot of stone and marble from older buildings” (p.336). There is also a surprise and wonder ascribed to the strength of the old monuments and building which have been there for more than a thousand years.
However, this sudden wealth brought with itself a lot of problems. While the contractors were busy making money, they were not able to keep an eye on how the money was being spent by their sons. In fact, some of them even derived pleasures from spoiling their sons. As a result, most of them went astray and started spending times in hunting and whoring. This lead to impetuous fights resulting in a few deaths as well. This trend can still be seen in the National Capital Region today where there is a lot of crime done by the kins of contractors and land holders who have become rich very quickly.
The novel also takes us through the pains of partisan through the experiences Ram Rakha and his family. There is a vivid description of killing of people on both sides of the border. Apart from that, the novel talks of a strong anti-Muslim sentiment which runs through Delhi after independence. There are the flag bearers of RSS who vehemently oppose Gandhi and his ideas of religious harmony. There is detailed description of the anti-Muslim riots and how the lives of the Muslims changed in the city just after independence.
The novel also provides us the glimpses of the anti-Sikh riots which were witnessed by the city after the killing of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1984, by her Sikh guards. There are lurid descriptions about how the Sikhs were murdered and the Holy Book of the Sikhs was burnt by the angry and agitated Hindu mob.
Delhi, as of today, is a mixture of traditions and modernity. Given the influx of migrants the city witnesses, it can be said that it has become a melting pot of cultures. This influx of migrants has led to rapid expansion of city and there are buildings built all around. The villages of Mehrauli, Chirag, Okhla, Badarpur and others which were once covered with forest and greenery are covered with buildings today. The old monuments which represent the glorious past of the city have either turned into ruins or are turning into ruins. But by no measures one can say that the runs have lost their splendor. In fact these “ruins proclaim the splendor of an old monument” (p. 25).
To a stranger, the city might seem repulsive, and nothing more than “a gangrenous accretion of noisy bazaars” (p.1). The same can be said of the people who inhabit the city. They do not endear strangers and are dirty in their mannerisms. But one has to love the city to know about its true charms. Its only until one knows them, one can find them unattractive. Despite the city has been “long misused by rough people” (p.1), there is still a lot of charm in the city. In fact, it has been able to hide its “seductive charms under a mask of repulsive ugliness” (p. 1). Amidst all the chaos which makes Delhi, one really needs to struggle a lot to survive it. And in narrator’s words, it is “only death and drink which make life worth living” (p.12) in Delhi.
Singh, K. (1990). Delhi: A Novel. Penguin Books India.