Delhi: Book Review by Asha Seth

When I wanted to read a book on Indian History, someone had recommended this book. But I am sure there are better books on the subject than this. Because, of history, I am not sure. But Sex and Death you will get in plenty in Khushwant Singh’s ‘Delhi: A Novel’. In fact, you get a much better account of what transpired in Delhi and transformed it to its current condition, in William Dalrymple’s ‘Kohinoor’.

The Plot:

Delhi and Bhagmati; the transsexual whore, form the core of this book. The author expounds the 600 year-old history of Delhi right from the era of Mughals to the assassination of Indira Gandhi in late nineties, through the eyes of a historian looking for a stable occupation, and engaged as a travel-guide for the time-being.

Image Credit: Goodreads

The Review:

Was it history interspersed with numerous episodes of cringy sex or numerous episodes of cringy sex interspersed with history? And a whole chapter on farts? That’s nth degree gross! But then one cannot expect any less of Mr Singh who is as blatant as the central character of this book, Bhagmati.

Here, I found this downright amusing,

“O Sage ! the stomach is the prison house of wind, The sagacious contain it not in captivity, If wind torment thy belly, release it, fart; For the wind in the stomach is like a stone on the heart.” 

There is obvious back and forth, since the protagonist keeps flitting between periods in history and his rather dull sexcapades, and more than once you are lost, left with loose threads of dreary narrations.

The longueurs on Indian History killed it for me especially because I could not distinguish if the writer’s imagination had meddled with the actual facts. Of course, there’s Singh’s humor and intellectual albeit sassy style, but other than that there isn’t much.

Now, that is as far as the content goes. The prose does not lose out on the richness of his style and subtle satire, we love him for. The grandeur of his words and the rare elegance of imagery do not fail in painting a picture of Delhi in your mind such as the author has in his heart.

These excerpts for instance, I felt, were magnificently written,

Dilli began to change. Every day a new building! When the work was finished we had nine days of tamasha. Princes showered silver coins on the crowds. The badshah rode through the city on his biggest elephant and scattered gold coins by the palmful. His courtiers said, ‘We won’t call “Dilli” “Dilli” any more. We will rename it Shahjahanabad.’ But Dilli is Dilli and no king or nobleman can give it another name.””

and this…

“Nature provides that a man who slaves all day should spend the hours of the night in a palace full of houris whereas a king who wields the sceptre by day should have his sleep disturbed by nightmares of rebellion and assassination.” 

and oh, how our society still has roots in this,

“The Muslims had become masters of Hindustan. They were quite willing to let us Hindus live our lives as we wanted to provided we recognized them as our rulers. But the Hindus were full of foolish pride. ‘This is our country!’ they said. ‘We will drive out these cow-killers and destroyers of our temples.’ They were especially contemptuous towards Hindus who had embraced Islam and treated them worse than untouchables.” 

Well, all I have to say is, Khushwant Singh, who blew me with his ‘Train to Pakistan‘ has made a rather unusual attempt at a metaphorical portrayal of Delhi; why he loves and loathes the most-exploited yet trivialized city of the world, which despite its queer brilliance wasn’t enough to rouse this reader.

If you happen to read ‘Delhi: A Novel’ or have already read it, do share your thoughts below.

©Asha Seth