Book Review: Delhi

An absorbing historical novel by Khushwant Singh on the history of the city from the Moghul invasions to 1984. The past and the present are linked nicely and gives the reader a good view of both at the same time. I couldn’t put down the book once I had started it and read through the day till I came to the end.

I loved the way that the guide would take some of his clients to a site and tell the summary of the story behind the ruins and the next chapter would take the reader back to the time when the ruins were flourishing living areas. I also loved the thoughtfulness that the writer had put into introducing characters at different levels of society, from kings and queens to labourers and sweepers, at each point when the past is brought to life, thus bringing the reader awareness of how the society as a whole existed, rather than focus on only one section of the society.

It was interesting to read the character of Aurangzeb treated favourably in the novel, while Shah Jahan and his eldest son Dara’s character not so favourably treated, in contrast to popular fictive takes on idolizing Shah Jahan and vindicating the son who became the successor to the throne. The writer choses to do this by showing that ruling families will always be fraught with survival of the fittest which they do so by eliminating potential competition, their own siblings. In light of this, he suggests that when Aurangzeb came to the throne by killing his two brothers and imprisoning the third, Murad, for life and confining his old father to the confines of the Agra fort, along with his eldest and youngest sisters for the remainder of their life, he was doing what his line of ancestors had been doing so, including his own father, and thus he could not be looked upon as a tyrant king. He also further goes to highlight the fact that he was the first and only ruler who choose not to live the royal life the royal way but lived meagerly on his own earnings from the sale of the religious books he copied in his own hand, while treating state wealth as being in his custody for the state and not for his own pleasures. Neither did he maintain a harem as was the trend of the Mughals. It was an interesting perspective of a character who has been blackened in history and provides an angle which seeks to show the personal traits which governed his actions. Even the demolition of places of worship other than those of Islam was explained by his devout Islamic upbringing and his concern that his father and brothers were deviating from a life that should be inherent for a good Muslim and he felt that as a ruler he had to show all his subjects that Islam was the only religion of God.

What is special about the book is that while the writer has clear feelings about the characters he brings to life through his writing, he justifies the actions of each in their lives by recreating their upbringing, their personal paths in lives which brings them to a particular place and action in time, thereby inviting the reader to not judge but simply observe the historical passing moments.

The book also manages to link the actions in the past with results in the future. The killing of a Sikh Guru in the past resulting in a movement centuries down the line, vowing revenge and the actions of later day leader of India, Indira Gandhi to quench this rising with violence leading to her own assassination, which in turn results in the state supported killings of Sikhs living in Delhi.

The story also highlighted the toils and labours and petty vanity that human beings put into their brief existence on this earth and that it is meaningless in the passing of time and yet, history continues repeating its horrors and power struggles and power hungry individuals bring up some historical incident to justify their actions to the rest of the world, while it is pure greed or sadly mistaken logic that drives them on to destruction. Yet, life goes on and these human made destruction a drop in the continuing violence in the existence of human beings. Will the earth continue tolerating these violations on her?

A word of caution though – some might find parts of the novel squeamish, mostly the parts which involve the guide who tends to focus on his sexual experiences. Thus, ‘erotic’ is one of the labels that some reviewers and the publisher have used to describe the novel. I see a story very well handled by the writer and the language flawlessly flowing to create visions of the past.

I now look forward to getting hold of Khushwant’s Singh more famous book ‘A train to Pakistan.’

Book details:

  • Title – Delhi: A Novel
  • Author – Khushwant Singh
  • Published by Penguin Books India
  • Published 14 Oct 2000
  • ISBN13 9780140126198
  • Category – Fiction, Literary Fiction

Note: I have transferred this review from my first blog, View from my Desk, when I deleted that blog so that I could focus on Perspectives Quilt. 

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