All is not hunky dory in the capital. You can't ignore the toxic side of the city, or its brutality
Delhi life isn't for the faint of heart. This is a city that breaks you, before it lets you belong. And while there's no doubt that it's a tough city to love, live in, or at this point, even breathe in, it's a city that has its own pull. I think of my second novel The Sibius Knot as an ode to Delhi, in a way, though that is not what it looks like at first glance. I agree with one of my characters when she says that this is a city that doesn't let you go, though I might not endorse her darker allusion to a serpent's coils.
It's not an easy city to love – ask anyone who's just moved to it. But once Delhi gets you, she gets you good. Maybe it's the sense of lived history, the monuments, the Ashoka, Gulmohur, Neem and other trees that have survived despite everything. And maybe it's the people, who, having made their way here, don't flinch no matter what's going around them, even as their city strives to change - to transform and construct at a frenetic pace. Maybe it's none of the above and something more central to the city's core. There's this air in some parts of town that this – all this dust and chaos – is just the surface; that there's something deeper and more fundamental.
Perhaps the charm lies in how the city constantly changes and surprises you. There's no question in my mind that it has become a better place to live, the past five to ten years or so. Actually, I trace the start of the change back to when the first Barista opened in Delhi, some fifteen years ago. Till then – and this is hard to explain to millennials – there just weren't any public spaces that women could feasibly go to on their own to sit, to space out, without being bothered or leched and leered at.
But of course, all is still not hunky dory. You can't ignore the toxic side of the city, or its brutality. The Sibius Knot looks deep into that void, I suppose, at the ubiquity of every-day violence – whether it's abuse, unprovoked aggression, stalking, harassment, or drug-induced devastation. One of the excerpts I have read out a couple of times has a character talking about how barbaric this city can be. From the tandoor murder to the Nithari case and December 16, every time you think you can no longer be shocked by violence, someone does something more gruesome.
“Why is the book so dark?” someone asked me the other day. “Because life is,” I say. Life in this city is. And I'm clearly not the only writer who is channelling that side of things.
Writings on the wall
Raj Kamal Jha's She Will Build Him A City is a novel that will take your breath away with the powerful forces it invokes. Pure, unadulterated love - almost a balm for the matter-of-fact violence that plays out - this is a book that shows the best and worst we have to offer. Set in Delhi and “New City”, inside the Metro and outside AIIMS, as much as the spaces between, Jha’s book has a physical, tangible feel to it. Absence, violence, trauma – all are integral to the story. I ask Jha whether he is drawn to the darker side of the city. He writes back, “There's not much hidden in clean, well-lit places. It's more fun, as a writer, to go looking for things in the dark, in messy, cluttered spaces - both physical and mental. New cities, divided on so many lines, have lots of such spaces.”
Another senior journalist, Avtar Singh, has his own take on the city. His novel, Necropolis begins with a murder. The story line covers vampires and immortals, migrants and Dilliwalas proper, as casually as bad choices, terrible traffic and history. At its heart a police case in the here and now, the novel is also incredibly evocative of the Delhi of old. Violence is very much a part of the story – as is intrigue.
I mail Avtar Singh to know whether he is also drawn to the darker side of this city, and to elaborate what one of his characters says mid-way through the book: “Delhi's always been a beacon to these lowlifes. Like moths to a flame."
Here's his reply: “I think that quote was in the context of trying to provide a historical context for what so many people persist in seeing ahistorically, which is that Delhi has always been attractive to people from "outside". Whether you see them as lowlifes, raiders, or migrants who desperately need (and frankly deserve) a shot at a life better than the one the Indian state is providing them, is of course up to you and your individual viewpoint. But what is important is that the process of this migration has speeded up exponentially in the last few decades. In a sense, Delhi's flame is burning brighter, more intensely. Is it because the areas around are darker, now, literally or metaphorically? That's a big question, isn't it?
When "respectable" politicians demonise migrants; when parks are closed against drivers and other domestic staff; when gates drop on colonies and communities after sundown - I suppose it is fanciful of me to think of Taimur, of Nadir Shah and Abdali and the Rohillas and Jats and Sikhs and the way Delhi was sought to be secured against them. And of course they visited hideous depredations on the city. But the siege mentality we have now is illuminating, not just because of what is sought to be excluded, but what we, the privileged people of Delhi, seek to protect.
The darker side of Delhi is just the mirror image of that: the flame, the fascination, the light of Delhi itself. Am I drawn to it? I'm a writer, a chronicler of Delhi, I'm alive and inquisitive and reasonably self-aware. How could I not be?”
End of an era
Be that as it may – and I note that all three of these examples are by writer-journalists – there does seem to be a change in how we are reading Delhi, how we're writing this city. Publisher Diya Kar Hazra, who heads Bloomsbury India, weighs in: “Artists and writers have always reflected in their work the times they live in; their work is a product of that time, the climate. If the Delhi we see in contemporary fiction is dark and disturbing, there's a reason. A lot depends on where and when the novel is set. Contemporary fiction might also be set in nineteenth-century Delhi or Delhi in 2099, or a totally fictional Delhi, which could be very different – disturbing and dark in a different way.”
The portrayals we are increasingly seeing are probably a reflection of the newer, harsher side of the city itself. In that sense, we seem to have moved from the quirky and delightful City of Djinns era. William Dalrymple’s book, published in 1993, certainly encapsulates an age, or several. But things have moved quite quickly since, through the late 90s and early 2000s. Not always for the better, though there are less “Backside” taxi stand signs and such like! More recently, Rana Dasgupta took a close hard look at the city in Capital: A Portrait of 21st century Delhi, leading The Guardian review to have this as the sub-head: “The savage realities of modern-day Delhi will not be changing any time soon, says Rana Dasgupta in this powerful study”.
On that front, only time will tell. But for as long as this paradoxical, bewitching city keeps its hold on us, it’s us – the denizens – who will keep telling her stories any way we know how.