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Delhi: A Novel by Khushwant Singh

Delhi: A Novel

by Khushwant Singh

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I read this as a book in praise of mixing, muddling and hybridity, and against dogmatism. Fittingly, then, it was a very hard book to pin down. Every time I thought I had a handle on it, it would shoot off in a new direction.

So what actually happens? The book starts with a passage where Singh extols the virtues of Delhi, under an unappealing exterior:

"I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Baghmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands. Delhi and Baghmati have a lot in common. Having long been misused by rough people they have learnt to conceal their seductive charms under a mask of repulsive ugliness ... What you have to do for things to appear different is to cultivate a sense of belonging to Delhi ... Then the skies over Delhi's marbled palaces turn an aquamarine blue ... I make Delhi and Baghmati sound very mysterious. The truth is that I am somewhat confused in my thoughts ... In these pages I will explain the strange paradox of my life-long, love-hate affair with the city and the woman. It may read like A Fucking Man's Guide To Delhi: Past & Present but that is not what I mean it to be."

The format is that the narrator alternates tales of his life in Delhi with episodes in Delhi's history, told by eyewitnesses. Initially the structure is fairly clear - the narrator squires some woman around Delhi, has sex with her at or near some famous monument, and then segues into the story of someone associated with the building of that monument. But it begins to decay: the narrator ages, and spends more time worrying about not having sex; and the historical episodes are less clearly linked to the events in his life.

The episodes in Delhi's history seem to focus on intolerance and massacre, with a very few stories that undermine that trend. There are a lot of self-justifying accounts by rulers, and a few stories from underlings who are buffeted by (or manage to take advantage of) forces much greater than them.

I had two problems with this book. The first is that the historical episodes take a lot of previous knowledge for granted - I found many of them quite hard to follow, especially the ones told by the rulers. The second is that I couldn't figure out the purpose in focusing all the stories of Delhi's history (and present) on such violence and hostility. I guess if I'd found it an easier book to read, I wouldn't have dwelt on this, but as it was I spent quite a lot of time wondering where it was going. The answer, as it turned out, was pretty bleak. I suppose it could have been (as quoted above) about the paradox of his love for Delhi, but for me there wasn't really anything that could explain the love, as well as the hate. ( )
  wandering_star | Nov 20, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140126198, Paperback)

Sprawling over several centuries of Delhi's evolution, the novel is often bawdy and irreverent, but nonetheless is also a meticulous study of the history of the city. The author is also an historian who has written, "A History of the Sikhs" and "Delhi: A Portrait".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:01 -0400)

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