Literary Trip to Delhi

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I first discovered the joys of reading books about a city whilst in situ when I sat in a hotel room in Mumbai with two books in front of me – a local guidebook and Leslie Forbes’ great thriller “Bombay Ice“. Without question I learned a lot more about the city from the novel than I ever could have done from the guidebook. Ever since that time I’ve tried to find books about the cities I love – and top of that list, the place I return to time and time again is Delhi.

Bahai Lotus Temple, DelhiThe must-read novel for anyone interested in this city is “Delhi: A Novel” by the great Indian writer Khushwant Singh. It’s definitely one for the less prudish reader as it gets a bit racy by Indian standards and you could be forgiven for thinking that his hero, another Mr Singh, appears to sleep with just about everyone he meets. In this book he tells of the lives of Singh, the disreputable playboy and sometime tour guide and his lover, the hermaphrodite prostitute Bhagmati and interweaves their stories with accounts from the history of the city he loves. As Singh grows older his historic tales leap forward in time, capturing the essence of the city’s history with tales of great victories, tragic defeats, slaughters and love stories until eventually present and past coalesce with the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi and the riots after the killing of Indira Gandhi. The historic parts are narrated by great emperors, poor servants, builders working on the construction of the city and political activists.

An Englishwoman in India” is the memoir of Harriet Tytler, a Victorian lady who fled Delhi during the mutiny of 1857 with her children. When her husband returned she insisted on going with him and became the only white woman present during the Siege of Delhi. “Whilst it’s the Siege that in historical terms defines the book and Tytler’s place in history, the book includes lots of tales from here childhood and Indian travels, illustrating both the charm and the dangers of a privileged life in mid 19th Century India.

East into Upper East By Ruth Prawer JhabvalaEast into Upper East” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is sub-titled “Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi” and reflects Prawer Jhabvala’s own life which is split between the two great cities. As an exercise in ‘Compare and Contrast’ it’s a beautiful collection of short stories based in the two cities that she loves. The book took almost 20 years to write and includes 13 stories, rich in characterisation and local details.

A Black Englishman” by Carolyne Slaughter (see full review here), bounces around all over India following Isabel, an adventurous Welsh woman who has rushed into an ill-conceived marriage with an English army officer and an even more unwise love affair with an Indian doctor. Part of the action is set in 1920’s Delhi.

Home” by Manju Kapur is a beautiful and disturbing family saga of a woman married into a traditional Delhi fabric business (see full review here). Behind the saris and the shops and the petty politics and corruptions, Kapur displays the blessings and traumas of living in an extended family against the richly painted backdrop of the Karol Bagh district of central Delhi. “The Immigrant“, also by Manju Kapur takes an older single woman living and teaching in Delhi and marries her off to a Non Resident Indian living in Canada. Kapur tells of Nina’s life as a spinster living with her widowed mother in a small flat and contrasts it with her loneliness in the snows of Halifax. The Immigrant By Manju KapurKapur is never afraid to challenge the normal daintiness of Indian writers, creating a heroine who’s not a virgin and isn’t afraid to get into an unsuitable attachment.

If you are looking for light ‘modern’ Indian fiction set in Delhi, you could do worse than track down a copy of “Family Planning” by Kiran Mahajan (see full review here). I suspect that unless you’ve already got to know the absurdities of Indian bureaucracy and family politics, it might not be quite so funny as it’s intended to be. I loved reading about the Minister – a man obsessed with his enormous family and his ‘flyovers’ and his son who’s just another kid trying to impress a girl on the school bus.

Another modern best seller is “One Night at the Call Centre” by Chetan Baghat (see full review here) which is set in a call center on the outskirts of Delhi. It’s not a great book and the plot is often ridiculous, but as an insight into the lives of India’s well-educated metropolitan youth, it’s full of insights about being young and in love in one of the world’s biggest cities.

White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a debut novel so good that it won the 2008 Man Booker prize. Narrated by a killer called Balram Halwai and structured as a series of letters to the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, it’s a darkly comic tale of what goes on beneath the surface of the privileged lives of the wealthy Dilliwalla. Halwai works as a driver for a fair and decent man but he’s always looking for a route to better himself.

The Englishman’s Cameo” by Madhulika Liddle won’t be released in Europe until later this year but is well worth adding to your reading list. It’s an historic mystery set in the Old Delhi in the city of Shahjahanabad at the time of the Moghul emperor Shahjahan. Muzaffar Jang is the protagonist, a man with aristocratic roots but friends ‘in low places’ and a murder (or few) to solve. If you’ve been to the Red Fort and Old Delhi, this book helps to bring alive the old parts of the city, recreating just how things might have been in the middle of the 17th Century.

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India By Madhur JaffreyIf, like me, you thought Madhur Jaffrey was famous only for making curries, then the first volume of her autobiography – “Climbing the Mango Trees” – may come as a surprise. Her childhood in Delhi is beautifully described and it’s fascinating to get such an insight into the life of a large wealthy family at a time when New Delhi was still new and life was rich and colourful. I’m ashamed to admit it was only after reading this that I started to notice that Jaffrey was in a large number of the classic Indian DVDs in my collection.

My final recommendation is not specifically about Delhi, but contains many fabulous photographs and accounts of the handover of power at Indian Independence. The book is “India Remembered” by Pamela Mountbatten and is an autobiographical account of the time spent with her parents, Earl and Countess Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India. The book is filled with tales of meetings with the greats of the Independence movement and openly admits to the strength of the relationship between her parents (especially her mother) and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. It’s a rich and personal memoir of a pivotal period in Indian history.

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Written by koshkha