Twilight in Delhi: Book Review by Asha Seth

Author: Ahmed Ali | Genre: Historical Fiction | Pages: 200 | Publisher: Rupa Publications

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Delhi, the earlier twentieth century. A glimpse of Mir Nihal’s life reveals a tranquil idyll; muezzins call azaan, fakirs and parched-gram sellers frequent the narrow by-lanes of the city, pigeons flutter in the sky, and the smell of kababs and jasmine hangs heavy in the air. But underneath the peaceful veneer, momentous changes are afoot. The Farangi King is holding a grand durbar in the city to celebrate British power and Mir Nihal runs into Mirza Nasirul Mulk, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s youngest son, begging on the streets.

twilight in delhi book review
Click on image to buy ‘Twilight in Delhi’

In ‘City of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple, I saw Delhi in a light no one had ever painted it before. But that was until I hadn’t read Twilight in Delhi. Everything that had squeezed my heart in Dalrymple’s masterpiece, rendered it bleeding in Ali’s tour de force. I came across this novel early this year when it popped up in ‘Books on Indian History’ list on Goodreads. The cover itself was enough to have my heart pounding in its cage sensing the absolute pleasure that awaited me. I had to order it. The book arrived with the first showers of rain and I was ready for another heart-wrenching experience.

Ahmed Ali’s novel is set in pre-war India between 1911 and 1918. The story is that of the Mir Nihal family and the part of Delhi that was left unaltered by the colonial rule. Mir Nihal, the head of the Nihal family is struggling to reinstate life to normal in a fast-changing Delhi. His son, Asghar, however is more keen on adopting to the new ways impregnated in the pristine environment of Delhi. Both the father and son are raging a cold war against each other. From flying pigeons to his solitary walks to the house of his mistress, from consenting to wedding his son to a low-case muslim girl to his profound loathing for his country’s captors, this novel is an overwhelming dive in the transforming landscape of Pre-partition Delhi, through the eyes of its protagonist – Nihal.

Other characters such as Nihal’s children, Asghar’s wife, Nihal’s mistress, are lack-lustre figures in the tales of longing and loss that was Mughal Delhi. Metaphorically, the Nihal’s family represents the last Mughal, his family, and the deteriorating Mughal line. In a drastically-changing environment; following the advent of the British, the line of control soon went from Mughals to the captors, and what was left of the people and city was a mere sinking, rotting debris of past memories, ruined under the weight of desperate attempts of freedom and holding on to one that once was. The pervading melancholy greatly defines and disturbs the mood as one soaks in the aftermath of a pristine culture, soon lost to careless hands and hearts. What one gets instead, is the ravaging of a most beloved; which hapless individuals such as Nihal couldn’t save, but only mourn.

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A historical novel, in which history takes precedence, then poetry does, and soon they keep swapping places, until they amalgamate into one to give the reader a heart-wrenching account of one of the oldest, richest, and most magnificent cities of the world – Delhi. Sweet. Poignant. Tragic. Flawless. A better lens to scan the Delhi of British India is hardly there. If your heart doesn’t bleed upon reading this elegy, you’ve simply not done it right.

Have you read ‘Twilight in Delhi’? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy reading till we meet next. Until then, carpe diem! 

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