A Review Of The Walls Of Delhi by Uday Prakash
Uday Prakash ’s The Walls of Delhi , translated into English by Jason Grunebaum , is a rare instance of contemporary Hindi fiction that bravely brings into sharp focus a world that otherwise remains incognito and dares to talk about issues that are always hushed and are tossed into an endless loop of deference. In the short span of the novel, Prakash deftly touches upon almost all the evils which plague our times. And the fact that he succeeds in doing so without sacrificing the compelling pull of narration, testifies to the feats of his literary genius. Right at the outstart of the tripartite narrative, Prakash’s ringing satire issues a warning sign. He pledges to bring to the fore secrets that will blur the divide between fact and fiction; reality and fantasy. He conjures a disturbing image of a topsy-turvy world where values get inversed and what gets registered as news is nothing but rumors. Gilded roofs are built on the hollow foundations of lies and hypocrisy. However, underlying Prakash’s playful quibble on ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, is a genuine anxiety concerning how the frail and bony structure of truth and justice might be gone from our own time; disappearing like ghosts in thin air.
The first story, The Walls of Delhi, shows how the life of Ramnivas, a sanitation worker who had moved to Delhi from a small village, changes completely one fine day as his broom thuds on a wall in the gym of a posh residential building in Saket that enclosed a hidden tunnel loaded with cash. With such a fortune, it is easier for Ramnivas to pursue his passionate affair with Sushma. Touring Delhi in autorickshaws, sipping sweet cold drinks, and indulging in treats of papri chat and extensive shopping sprees, the lives of the two lovebirds become nothing short of a technicolor film. But Ramnivas’ temporary luck comes with a cost. Raided by the police while on a trip to Agra with Sushma, he commits the drunken mistake of revealing the secret of the unlimited cash mine to the officers and immediately after this, Ramnivas disappears from the neighborhood mysteriously. In a tiny corner of the local news, it is reported that near the gym in Saket, two robbers have been killed in an encounter. One of the two dead men remains unidentified. It is not difficult for the readers to fit the last piece of the puzzle in its place and understand that the unidentified man is none other than Ramnivas who is done away with as soon as he gets entangled in a bigger scam involving counterfeit money. He becomes just a pawn in a higher game played by men in power. The story ends with the narrator declaring in a dreamy voice that he goes out on walks every night, scavenging the by-lanes of Delhi to hanker after the impossible dream which once was Ramnivas’s. In a voice redolent with satire, he claims that the only way to make it big in life is not by doing honest hard work but by picking up an axe and hunting the city for hidden money. In an incantatory spell, he keeps on chanting the wise words that were once spoken by Hazrat Nizammudin. Prakash, under the guise of the narrator’s mask, fuses the past with the present to emphasize that the country’s capital, the majestic Delhi, continues to be “far away” from the reach of so many Everyman like Ramnivas.
The second story Mohandas, is a tale that is colored with fear and deep pathos. It reads like an affidavit of a frightening time when knee-deep corruption is rampant even in a little village in India. Mohandas, the erstwhile topper of his college coming from a lower caste of Kabirpanthi weavers, has been far removed from the momentary glory of his past. He is devastated by a series of rejections despite having the required qualifications for bagging a job. When uneducated men are getting hired just because of their political connections, Mohandas has almost no social, economic, or cultural capital to accelerate his career. He has a strong sense of self-respect and finds it impossible to sell himself and lick the feel of influential men. In fact, he romantically cherishes the hope that he will be among the scant twenty percent that gets jobs by honest means. But reality does not encourage building such empty castles in the air and soon, Mohandas is crushed by the brute forces of nepotism and illegal power. Bisnath, a tenth-grade dropout, and a higher caste man forges the identity of Mohandas and sneaks his hard-earned in the Oriental Coal mines. Using all his resources, Bisnath prevents the truth from coming to light and the pathos of the story is that the truth, in fact, never comes to light. Nobody pays heed to the penury-stricken, copper-skinned Mohandas’s earnest protests about how he is the real Mohandas. He is beaten black and blue for making such a claim. In a feat of madness, Mohandas quibbles on the absurdity of it all: nobody can be somebody unless he has money or power and a Bishnath can easily obliterate the existence of a Mohandas. Mohandas ultimately fails to get justice because of testimonies by false witnesses, shallow enquires, and red-tapism. So, Prakash cleverly effects a social commentary by layering Mohandas’ tragic fate with the tragic demise of the lofty ideal of democracy. Through the portrayal of the primeval oppression that Mohandas is subjected to even in an age of fast cars, mobiles, and globalization, Prakash exposes that the facets of modernity have failed to trickle down to the likes of Mohandas. At the end of the story, the pathos becomes rigging as Mohandas surrenders his fight and claims that the whole ordeal of reclaiming his real name now appears as a luxury. He lets go of the identity that is central to the entire corpus of identity-based politics like caste politics and makes a feeble plea of just letting him live the rest of his life somehow.
The third story, Mangosil, opens with a meditation on the wrongful way in which people are uprooted from their tribes, settlements, communities, and cultures because of the increasing encroachment of urbanization. The narrator envisions the apocalypse when at the fag end of time, violence will permeate everything. He talks about how civilization is slouching slowly towards destruction crystallized in the maddening new epoch. A shift of tone takes place as he then takes up the story of Chandrakant and Shobha. Rescuing Shobha from her previous life in which she was brutally raped almost every day by biggies like inspectors and contractors, Chandrakant brings her to settle with him in a rented ground-floor flat located in one of the dingy by-lanes of the Jahangirpuri slums. Years later, they give birth to a son named Suri whose head grows bigger and bigger every day. It is soon revealed that Suri suffers from a rare disease called Mangosil that is brought about by growing up in the swaps of poverty under putrid sanitary conditions. The ailment, however, gifts Suri with keen insight and he starts watching the news and penning down sensitive pieces of poetry, being deeply affected by whatever goes around him. In one memorable instance, he even compares the physical decay of his body with the slow death of India. The narrator claims that the children like Suri with eyes as red as ants and swollen heads swirling with prophetic powers are the very children of poverty and revolution. An interesting element of this story is that the narrator is an independent freelancer who has been ousted from the world of mainstream authors. So, Prakash’s choice of creating such a character, indeed, indicates that he is trying to hint at the alterity of his status in the literary world. The story ends with a dark, grueling, premonitory power and it leaves the readers wondering for more.
Although separated into sections, the three stories have a visible interconnection. It is as if all three protagonists: Ramnivas, Mohandas, and Suri are connected by an invisible string of fate. Their problems are also not born in isolation but have a common root. The parallelisms and repetitions of themes, motifs, and ideas make the novel a very witty read.
The Walls of Delhi also contains an interesting take on space. It offers an odd tour of the city of Delhi and focuses the attention away from central sites, the obvious archival spots, and mainstream spaces to the less frequented, unfamiliar ones thereby proving the heterogeneity of the city space and the politics of visibility that threatens to veil it. These by-lanes, forgotten corners, and shady tunnels are further inhabited by loonies, druggies, beggars, and wandering individuals with makeshift homes. Bad things happen to them and they live and die in oblivion. But Prakash’s novel obsessively explores the spaces frequented by such characters and the lives that they lead in such a chaotic underworld.
Prakash’s novel can be charged with the label of a morbidly pessimistic tale; one that has no redemption to offer. His protagonists who are the sorrowful victims of corrupt politics seem to be squeezed on all sides with no escape routes from their jarring, disorienting reality. The lowly, poor, and destitute cry silent tears while they are cornered by injustice. Prakash shows a world caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare where oppressive power relations are web-like and sprawling. Arising from the rubbles of the century, his characters carry their wounded bodies in the futile search of a protector who never arrives. However, it will be wrong to say that Walls of Delhi is entirely depressing. The novel has its fair share of poignant moments that leap from the narratives like faint flickers of hope. The daunting courage of women like Kasturi and Shobha who battle against misogynist monsters, the sweet songs sung by Mohandas that carry in them the elixirs of life, the powerful poems penned by Suri, and the knowledgeability of the subalterns like Snehi Ram who know the entire Tulsidasi Ramayana by heart, exposes crevices in the narrative from where flecks of bright, sunny light peep in. The sexuality of most of the characters also reveals how they too have a right to enjoy the few pulsating moments of reverie in life that cannot be otherwise bought with money. Prakash’s narration in such points turns into sheer poetry. It is filled with imagery and has a strong, evocative charm.
Prakash, time and again, also links the microcosm with the macrocosm. He talks of the global and national crises simultaneously to show how power everywhere, in all its forms, only serves those who enjoy the status of hegemony and cripples the dispossessed. Under the guise of storytelling, he keeps making important political commentary, attacking institutions like casteism and state apparatuses like the police, media, and judiciary. He even laments how in the growing age of late capitalism, literature has also been turned into a commodity that can be gambled. So, his anti-establishment strain especially becomes relevant in a work that has been written in a language like Hindi which enjoys a hegemonic status and involves a space like India where complex layers of majoritarian forces are at work. However, the fact that the novel has been translated by someone hailing from the First World, does not thwart its political objective. Rather, the contemporaneity of English, and its easy comprehensibility, make it accessible to a wide section of readers. The Walls of Delhi proves how translation does not always lead to the loss of original meaning but can also be exploited as a gateway of possibilities.
Prakash pleads the case of the common men. He shows how they too can be treated as fit protagonists of a tragedy: a little man can also be the hero of a story because in him burns the flame of sustenance such that “no matter what kind of power is trying to come down on him, it will never destroy him.” Prakash, in fact, successfully sets up an alternative documentation of such people; one that will not be found anywhere in official histories and archives.
Thus, Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi has the “color of ash left over from a burning coal” and runs out of the pages into a violent shriek. It is Prakash’s ode to resistance and his looking glass through which he reads society against the grain.
Also, read a French story by Kokouvi Dzifa Galley, translated into English by Dodzi Edem Amenyo, and published in The Antonym: