From the ancient times of the Mahabharata to the splendour of the Mughal period to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Delhi’s tumultuous history has long inspired writers. For anyone planning to visit Delhi, the following books offer a glimpse into Delhi’s changing history, culture and society.
Nostalgia for a fading past, the collapse of culture and the failure to do anything about it makes for a moving tale of melancholy and desperation in Ahmed Ali’s first novel, Twilight in Delhi. Although the story is about Mir Nihal and his family, Old Delhi 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. The despair of Mir Nihal will stay with you long after you finish the book. Translations are available in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Urdu.
Clear Light of Day is Anita Desai’s first of three novels to have received 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 deals with the transformation of the city as Old Delhi starts being overtaken by the modern and more fashionable New Delhi, with the changes in the family’s fate over time reflecting Delhi’s evolution.
Tracing incidents from Delhi’s past with humour and irreverence is this outstanding novel by Khushwant Singh. An erudite narrator tunnels through the events that shaped Delhi, from the First War of Independence in 1857 to the riots of 1984, and from the Mughals to the Lodhis and Tughlaqs. Singh’s prose takes no prisoners: he describes the destruction of the city at the hands of Nadir Shah and Taimur, while also making a point about how Delhi, as a city, destroyed figures such as the poet Mir Taqi Mir.
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 Sonali, a well-educated civil servant. As issues of corruption, power and money are tackled, the contrast between the lives of the rich in Delhi and the poor play out.
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 the powerlessness of those who come from the lower strata of society. Delhi is the base from which Balram, who eventually prospers, alters his destiny.
The Old Delhi of 1920 comes alive in this beautiful tale by 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 tackles feelings of love, hatred, jealousy and greed while vividly illustrating the culture of early 20th century Old Delhi, complete with bustling bazaars and black magic.
The Walls of Delhi comprises three stories about characters whose lives are plagued by poverty. Prakash incisively details the everyday battles of those struggling to make ends meet in a big city. There’s Mohandas, a lower-caste man whose hard-earned achievements are infringed upon by an upper-caste identity thief; Ramnivas, a sweeper whose life changes after he stumbles upon a hoard of cash; and Prakash, who provides an insight into poverty, caste discrimination, urban displacement and corruption that continue to plague India.
The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami is a hilarious book about the absurdity of Indian politics and bureaucracy. 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.
Salman Rushdie’s Booker-Prize-winning Midnight’s Children is an epic, postcolonial novel that deals with India’s move from colonial rule to independence. It is set in various cities across the Indian subcontinent, with a moving description of the Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi and its subsequent influence on Delhi.
Grace Beard contributed additional reporting to this article.