Delhi by M Mukundan is rather reminiscent, in terms of plot structure, of Forrest Gump (or, I suppose, of the pitch for Lal Singh Chadda). It chooses a handful of characters and puts them through the grinder of historical events taking place from the 1960s to the 1980s. The tone of Delhi, though, is far more grim than Forrest Gump – the characters are hyperaware of their circumstances, which makes sense, because from beginning to end, their circumstances range only from harrowing to horrific.
It’s like A Series of Unfortunate Events, except without the absurdity, or the humorous narration, or the middle-grade reading demographic or the... you get the gist. There are a lot of events and they are all unfortunate, that is my point.
Mukundan does not show a lot of interest in trying to bait the readers with hope. There aren’t really cliffhangers of any kind, he depends very little on suspense. Somehow, in spite of that, and in spite of none of the characters ever getting a break, the novel is riveting. You don’t want to know what happens next, but you also can’t rest without finding out. It’s like what they say about roadkill: can’t look, can’t look away. ( I realise that might not sound like a ringing endorsement – I promise the book is better to look at than literal roadkill).
Aside from their abysmal luck, though, and the fact that they all belong to a community/demographic some people would like to stamp out like cockroaches, the entire cast actually has very little in common. The diversity isn’t tokenistic, either. Everyone is written wonderfully, with their identities being neither namesake alone nor the whole of their personalities.
I emphasise on identity because a kind of identity politics is at work throughout the novel – necessarily so, given the time, place, and themes. Delhi doesn’t pull its punches in its display of India’s bigotry. There are portrayals of systemic, verbal, and physical violence against the poor, against women, against Sikhs and Muslims, against DBA people, and even against Delhiities.
(“Most Delhiites didn’t seem to mind the stink and refuse,” observes Sahadevan, our dashing hero. “It was a problem for [him] because he still had the civic sense of a Malayali.” This is one of the two instances of humour in the novel, the other being the line: “There were no birds, no clouds. A blanket of dust had turned the sky into a desert. Why had Indiraji declared an Emergency in such weather? Possibly to harass the people even more.”)
Delhi is neither solely character-driven nor solely plot-driven, which is really the best way to tell a story like this. Against the backdrop of chaos, the characters do their best to build themselves dignified lives. There are books that achieve this effect by zooming in and out of the picture, and Mukundan certainly does that too to an extent, but the form the book really takes is that of a slow-paced story punctuated – punctured – every now and again by whatever fresh hell the Powers That Be (the Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani governments) manage to cook up next.
Mukundan does show us that each event is experienced differently by people in different walks of life – the Emergency in particular – but ultimately, all of them seem to end up losing. The protagonist, Sahadevan, through whose eyes the story is told, is a thoughtful, intelligent man, given to introspection and internal monologues. No complaints from me, they’re really good monologues. Through this device Mukundan dissects themes like the intersections of war, patriotism, and communality – themes that are once again painfully relevant today.
“The theatre of war has everything. It has collapsing buildings and bridges. It has patriotism. It has death. It has soldiers who martyr themselves. It has loneliness. Separation. Memories. It has mature women wearing towels. It has fever. It has sardines carried away by roving cats. War is the comprehensive human experience.”
“When Shreedharanunni was alive, Abdullah Bawa used to tell him about his poverty... Shreedharanunni was no more. Abdullah Bawa’s poverty was alive and kicking.”
Aside from regularly spitting facts about political philosophy, Sahadevan’s main occupation seems to be stretching himself far too thin trying to solve anyone and everyone’s problems. He implies at one point that it is not that he has too many tigers by the tail so much as that the tiger is placing its tail in his hand.
This is not true. Sahadevan is simply unable to keep from taking everyone under his wing. Only poachers are more attracted to tiger tails than he. He is one of those pouring-from-an-empty-cup people that therapists like to warn you not to become (Mental Health Instagram would have had a field day with him if anyone on it was prone to things like reading).
This is convenient in that Sahadevan is great at tying a lot of plotlines together – believably, because of how consistently his character is written – but also, I think it’s a mark of skill that this martyr syndrome doesn’t ever come across as obnoxious or holier-than-thou. He really is just not the best at setting boundaries, but also, it’s very clear that this is a climate of the weak doing everything they can to keep one another afloat because forget helping, everyone else is actively attacking them.
Not all of the weak are as lucky as the Sahadevan’s circle of Malayalis / Communists and Other Minorities, either. An exchange from the book sums it up nicely: “‘In such a political climate, each one is afraid, and they ignite more fear. Fear will soon be the only emotion left.’ ‘So, patriotism turns to fear, eh?’ ‘Exactly.’ ”.
Still, Mukundan does not take any prisoners here either. Those who survive do so at a cost. They lose livelihoods, physical ability, mental health, friends and family. They start from the bottom over and over again. Near the very end of the novel, Sahadevan thinks to himself: “He would handle everything else once he was back in Delhi, like he had first done in 1959. He would look for a job. He would find a place to stay...As he thought about it, the image of a play formed in his mind. The actors play the same role in the same story, again and again.”
Triumph of translation
These are hungry, tired, determined characters. In this litany of personal crises interrupted by national crises, somehow time is made for love stories (plural!) – most of them transgressive in some way. There are visits home and acts of real goodwill. There is a lot that tugs at the heartstrings in a good way – usually not entire scenes, but exchanges here and there, a conversation, an unthinking act of solidarity.
Maybe this is what keeps Delhi from feeling like tragedy porn, because the book is frequently dampened but almost never soggy. It leaves you pained and a little tired – I had to watch a bad Hindi movie afterwards to cope (this review dedicated to Dharma Productions!) – but you won’t regret reading it. Unless your thing is stories that contain a glimmer of sunlight or laughter, or you like feeling happy or something... no, but really. You won’t regret it.
And as for whether or not the translation was good – truthfully, I didn’t realise I was reading a translated novel until after I was done, because I skipped the title page and the acknowledgements page and all the pages that didn’t have the story on them, because I had not realised then what the story was about to do to me and still felt things like hope and excitement.
Anyway, the novel is in perfect Indian English, fluent without losing its (South) Indian flavour – what I like to call “coconut flavoured”. It reads kind of like a much more woke RK Narayan, if that makes sense.
I only wish the translators had been merciful enough to translate some of the Hindi dialogue, much of which is just romanised – maybe to preserve its villainous quality (the Hindi dialogues are largely from policemen. I am not clear on whether Mukundan is familiar with the George Floyd case, but I have no doubts as to his views on whether or not all cops are lousy). Still, hats off to Fatima EV and Nandakumar K for bringing to the rest of us a novel like this – and at a time when it is unquestionably needed.
Delhi: A Soliloquy, M Mukundan, translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV and Nandakumar K, Eka.