Delhi has long inspired poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers. From the ancient times of the Mahabharata to the splendour of the Mughal period to the scar of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Delhi’s history provides creative inspiration. For anyone planning to visit Delhi, these works of fiction offer unparalleled glimpses into the changing history, culture and society of this famed city.
Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali
The nostalgia of the withering past, the collapse of culture and the failure to do anything about it makes for a moving tale of melancholy and desperation in Twilight in Delhi. Although the story is about Mir Nihal and his family, it is Old Delhi that is the ultimate protagonist. A city that once commanded the attention of the world has to now witness the coronation of British King George near the Jama Masjid while the descendant of a Mughal ruler is found begging on the streets. Each emotion is intimately captured by the writer, and the despair of Mir Nihal stays with us long after the final pages of the book.
Translations are available in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Urdu.
Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai
Clear Light of Day, published in 1980, is Anita Desai’s sixth novel and the first among her three Booker Prize nominations. Set primarily in Old Delhi, Clear Light of Day is essentially a family saga revolving around three siblings Tara, Bimla and Raja. The novel also underscores the transformation of the city as Old Delhi starts being overtaken by the modern and more fashionable New Delhi. The changes in the family’s fate over time runs parallel to the evolution of the city of Delhi itself.
Delhi: A Novel, Khushwant Singh
Delhi: A Novel is an outstanding work by Khushwant Singh. It traces incidents from Delhi’s past with the writer’s characteristic humour and irreverence. The narrator goes by the name “Mr. Singh” and his first name is never mentioned. Although it isn’t very hard to guess that the erudite and amorous writer and occasional tour guide is Singh, the author, himself. As he carries out a romantic relationship with a eunuch named Bhagmati, the narrator highlights the destruction of the city by the likes of Nadir Shah and Taimur, while also making a point about how Delhi, as a city, wrecked figures like the poet Meer Taqi Meer. From the First War of Independence in 1857 to the riots of 1984, from the Mughals to the Lodhis and Tughlaqs, the novel tunnels through all the events that shaped Delhi, for better or for worse.
Rich Like Us, Nayantara Sahgal
Rich Like Us is a novel based in New Delhi in the 1970s. Most of it is set during the Emergency, imposed by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The narrative explores how the lives of two very different aristocratic women become entwined with the events of history. Rose is an Englishwoman and the second wife of a wealthy businessman, who finds it difficult to adjust to life in India. She befriends Sonal, a well-educated civil servant. As the issues of corruption, power and money are tackled, the contrast between the lives of the rich in Delhi and the poor play out.
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
In an article published in Livemint, Aravind Adiga writes, “Most of all, during my time in Delhi I understood what I was meant to want on earth. More than money, fame, or life—O, much more than life—I wanted to write.” In his first novel The White Tiger (which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008), Delhi plays an indispensable role. It is here that Balram, the protagonist, becomes aware of the limitless affluence around him. He also becomes conscious of the vast class divide, and that those who come from the lower strata of society have very little significance. Delhi is the base from which Balram, who eventually prospers, alters his destiny.
The Heart Has its Reasons, Krishna Sobti
The Old Delhi of 1920 comes alive in this beautiful tale woven by the talented Krishna Sobti. The reader is transported back in time to the bustling by-lanes of Chandni Chowk. The married Hindu lawyer Kripanarayan starts a torrid love affair with a Muslim courtesan’s daughter, Mehak Bano, while his wife Kutumb struggles to fight for her marriage. Sobti masterfully renders the human emotions of love, hatred, jealousy and greed while the original culture of Old Delhi, complete with bustling bazaars and black magic, flourishes behind the scenes.
The Walls of Delhi, Uday Prakash
The Walls of Delhi comprises three stories that sketch the lives of characters steeped in urban poverty. Prakash is incisive in detailing the everyday life struggles of these characters trying their best to make ends meet. Whether it’s through Mohandas, a lower-caste man whose hard-earned achievements are infringed upon by an upper-caste identity thief, or through Ramnivas, a sweeper whose life changes after he stumbles upon a hoard of cash, Prakash provides an insight into poverty, caste discrimination, urban displacement and corruption that continue to plague India. The writer holds a mirror to society with his own distinct wry humour.
The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami, R. Chandrasekar
The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami is a hilarious book about the absurdity that is Indian politics and bureaucracy. The writer cleverly portrays the corruption and inadequacy of those who hold power in India’s capital. The plot revolves around the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Motwani, who’s always getting into trouble, and his subordinate, Mr. Swami of the Indian Administration Service, who tries to set things right. When the Prime Minister of Pakistan invites himself to an India-Pakistan cricket match series, the shortcomings of the Indian administration are laid bare, giving rise to several hysterical episodes.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is not only a Booker Prize winner but is also the recipient of The Best of the Booker. This monumental work by Rushdie straddles numerous cities, with Delhi being one of them. The representation of the Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi and its subsequent influence on Delhi is one of the very best of any work of fiction. The novel is harsh in its criticism of Gandhi and her son Sanjay, who was involved in the demolition of the slums around Jama Masjid and the brutal forced sterilisation programme.