“In this world of shadows nothing ever remains the same.”

The month of Ramzan seems like the perfect time to revisit Indian and Pakistani writer Ahmed Ali’s first book in English, published in 1940 and set among the Muslim inhabitants of Old Delhi. The vivid description of the narrow lanes around the Jama Masjid after evening prayers, replete with the smell of kababs, the sight of colorful sherbets, and people milling around in their new clothes, could easily apply to an image of the area right now, after the day’s fast is broken.

However, this cheerful scene is not representative of the book’s overarching mood.

After all, it is twilight. The in-between hour of bleak light and long shadows. Day will pass into night and night into day. Transience is the only certainty, both in the lives of individual characters as well as that of the city. Ali’s wife Bilquis Jahan translated the book into Urdu as Dilli ki Shaam, a title that suggests more clearly the duality of its meaning. It is not only twilight in Delhi, with all the imagery that entails, but also the twilight of Delhi.

Of all the books I’ve written about for this series, this one is the most lyrical and the most heartbreaking. Ali evokes the sounds and smells of Old Delhi perfectly to create a lingering mood of melancholy.

The story is set between the period between 1911 and 1919, revolving around the Nihal family, which resides in an old house in a network of alleys in what is now old Delhi. It’s no exaggeration to say that all the characters in this book experience moments of deep sadness, often triggered by sounds in the distance or atmospheric details like a turn in the weather. It is hardly surprising that Ali, who was also a poet and a translator of Urdu works, should weave verse and song throughout his narrative.

In fact, each section of the book opens with an epigraph comprising verses from poets like Ghalib and Hafiz. Often, wandering qawwals sing in the distance, or a child cries out somewhere, evoking a sense of sorrow. Even mundane sounds like “the peculiar noise of silver-leaf makers beating silver and gold”, the chattering of sparrows, and the “heart-rending cries” of a blind beggar serve as a mournful soundtrack to the lives of individuals.

Ahmed Ali on the cover of the book
Ahmed Ali on the cover of the book

Where love has gone

Towards the beginning of the book, we find twenty-two year-old Asghar pining for Bilqueece, the daughter of a “low-born” Muslim, a young woman whom Asghar’s family considers most unsuitable for marriage. He often sighs and feels sorry for himself, and his mood is contagious. “To be loved is sweet, he thought, whereas to love is full of sorrow and grief and pain.” Later, filled with self-pity, he calls himself the “most unfortunate creature in the whole world”. As he speaks, qawwals on a nearby roof sing lines that complement “his own mood.” Asghar projects his longing onto the universe at night when he gazes upon the stars. The prose is heightened at such moments to reflect Asghar’s acutely sensitive nature:

“There are big stars and small stars, stars shining with a lonely lustre, and stars glowing in bunches like pearls strung together in a necklace or like the forehead ornament of a beautiful brow. There are bunches of them shaped like a semicircular purse, and stars shaped like a nose-ring studded on a delicate nostril. And there are stars and stars, and inside the stars are cool, green worlds, and every star is a lovely maid.”

Asghar is not the only one who suffers. Nearly everyone must deal with regrets and disappointments. His sister, Begum Waheed, who was widowed at nineteen and prohibited from remarrying by the dominant Hindu social code, is forced to remain at her in-laws’ home, far from her own family. She “felt very lonely in an alien land and often wept silently”. His cousin Masroor, who lives with them, “would shed a few tears and, filled with self-pity, would think of his dead parents…” It is Asghar’s mother, Begum Nihal, who perhaps utters the most poignant lines to her philandering husband: “I know only how to burn. I don’t know how to light the fire.”

Then there is Mushtara Bai, the lovely dancing girl and Asghar’s former lover. In a touching scene set in the red light area of Chaori Bazaar, Asghar goes to visit her one last time. “From all around came the sounds of song, whining of sarangis, muffled drums and the tinkling of bells, as the dancing girls entertained their customers. The music made Asghar feel more sad, for it reminded him of his love.” Mushtara Bai learns that Asghar has fallen in love with another. She rolls paan and sings a plaintive song for him, which only makes Asghar feel guilty and restless.

And finally, there is Bilqueece herself. The object of Asghar’s love and desire, the young girl is sought after as a prize. Asghar strategises with various relatives to make his father come around and agree to the marriage. When he succeeds, it appears that love has won. But the omniscient narrator points out that Bilqueece herself had little choice in the matter. After the wedding, she is initially bewildered and shy. In one of several instances of commentary on the plight of Indian women, we are informed that she had no prior experience in the realm of romance, for “in the world of an Indian home, where the woman is relegated to a subordinate place, love enters very rarely”. Once she gets used to her new life, and actually falls in love with Asghar, Bilqueece discovers that his ardor has cooled. Now, it is her turn to yearn.

In general, women do not have a very good time. Ali does a terrific job of depicting life within the zenana, the traditional inner courtyard where Muslim women confine themselves and keep purdah.

“Mostly life stayed like water in a pond, with nothing to break the monotony of its static life. Walls stood surrounding them on all sides, shutting the women in from the prying eyes of men, guarding their beauty and virtue with the millions of their bricks. The world lived and died, things happened, events took place, but all this did not disturb the equanimity of the zenana…The day dawned, the evening came, and life passed them by.”

Even minor characters are haunted. Asghar sees an elderly stranger in the crowd one time, and notices that “There was something sad and unknown in his eyes and they seemed to be looking for someone, a friend who had been separated, or a loved one far away.”

However, the saddest figure of all is that of his father, Mir Nihal, the patriarch of the family. He serves as the conscience of the book, reflects the political views of its author, and observes the decline of Delhi most keenly, for he is one of the old timers who has witnessed first-hand the fall of the Mughal Empire and the subsequent rise of the British one. But his sorrows are also more personal.

Mir Nihal grieves for his mistress Babban Jan when she dies. “Her thought was sad and sweet, like the memory of some dear one dead, coming from somewhere far away, ripping open the veils of the unconscious, saddening the heart.” Like his son and the other characters, Mir is a sensitive man. It takes a lot less than the death of a loved one to make him pensive. When his beloved pigeons fly down to perch on his shoulder in the hope of getting something to eat, and begin to peck at his beard, Mir Nihal is moved. “There was something so loving and tender in this action of the birds that a storm of self-pity welled up within his breast. His heart contracted into a point with pain, then expanded as if wanting to burst out of its sides. And he stood there, lost in an engulfing sense of futility.”

Despair and delight

Mir’s sense of futility arises not only from those around him to whom he is attached, but from the decline of Muslim aristocracy. The year 1911 was the one in which the capital of British India was transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. While initially, the Anglophiles and opportunists in the book are optimistic about their prospects, particularly at the end of the year when King George V holds his Coronation Durbar in the new Indian capital, Mir Nihal has no illusions. His contempt for English ways is apparent early, when he yells at his son Asghar for wearing “those dirty English boots,” and for his “aping of the Farangis”. Mir clearly serves as the author’s voice. In the illuminating (and somewhat self-important) Introduction to the 1993 edition of the book, Ali is quite scathing about what he calls “Bentinck’s Westernisation and Macaulay’s painting our faces brown with a pigmentless brush of Anglicisation.”

The novel begins with a lament about the decline of Delhi. “It was the city of kings and monarchs, of poets and story tellers, courtiers and nobles. But no king lives there today, and the poets are feeling the lack of patronage; and the old inhabitants, though still alive, have lost their pride and grandeur under a foreign yoke.” Later in the book, Delhi begins to change physically too, as Chandni Chowk is disfigured when its central causeway is demolished and its peepul trees cut down, to make way for the Coronation Durbar.

In the Introduction, Ali says, “My purpose in writing the novel was to depict a phase of our national life and the decay of a whole culture, a particular mode of thought and living, values now dead and gone before our eyes.” By 1918, a growing sense of disillusionment with the British Empire is apparent in the latter chapters of the book. “The glory had gone, and only dreariness remained. The richness of life had been looted and despoiled by the foreigners, and vulgarity and cheapness had taken its place.” Nostalgia hangs over everything.

Mir Nihal spends his twilight years lying paralysed in bed, tormented by disappointments. His wife has lost her eyesight and is condemned to spending her days sitting quietly inside the zenana, where she cuts areca nut into small pieces. Other characters die prematurely, leaving behind loved ones to wallow in their grief and regrets. The overall mood is one of despair. “The sky was overcast with dust and sand. The kites circled and cried; there was dreariness in the atmosphere…”

This book might have been unbearably depressing. But it’s not. There are books by Indian authors that include more tragic events, and more graphic descriptions of violence and relentless oppression. This is not one of those books. The lyrical prose and sensuous descriptions take the melancholy and render it sublime. Many of the chapters end with the words, “And life went on…” A sense of inevitability about “the mystical sense of the transience of the world” makes loss and longing not only bearable but also beautiful. And every now and then the clouds part to reveal a burst of sunlight, such as in Asghar’s lively and colorful wedding scenes or the joyous celebrations of Eid, when the smell of kababs and sounds of vendor’s cries float in the air.

Through all the changes wrought on the world, one thing remains constant – the mournful and haunting sound of the azaan.

“Just as the sun had set his golden voice would rise gradually in the air, and, rippling with the glory of Islam, would unfold its message to the Mussalmans, bringing with it a sense of the impermanence of life and the transience of the world. His voice could be heard far and wide in several mohallahs, rising above the din and noise of the town, leaping to the stars.”

I must confess that I read this book on a Kindle. But I have already ordered my paperback edition. Because a book like this is too romantic to read digitally. I think Ahmed Ali – and Mir Nihal – would insist on a “proper” physical copy for your Bottom Shelf.


Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.