Capital Literature – Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali

The Delhi walla‘s pretension in writing makes me want to lodge a bullet in his balls – Blogger Nimpipi, the woodchuck chucks
Contact for ad enquiries.

Dark Shadows Falling

The definitive Old Delhi novel.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Which is that one book you carry while walking around in the city? I lug along with Twilight in Delhi. First published by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1940, this novel was written by a Delhiwalla called Ahmed Ali.

Mr Ali could not live his entire life in the city of his birth. After the Indian Partition, he had to move to Pakistan where he died in Karachi in 1994. However, thanks to the novel, no passport nationality could snatch away his Delhiness. For his is the definitive Old Delhi novel. There is romance, tragedy and drama; there is fine prose; pulsating history. But what elevates the book into the thin air is that despite its 200 pages, it manages to transcend its novelistic limitations. It becomes a gateway to a city which many think has died, a conviction that perhaps account for the novel’s cult status.

But no, that Delhi is still alive. I keep going there.

Just walk in Pahari Bhojla or turn into a quiet lane, off the Matia Mahal bazaar, and you would find yourself entering into the pages of Twilight in Delhi – pigeon wallas, kite-fliers, poets, majnus, purdah women, mullahs, and street vendors. The novel’s 19th century Delhi ‘reads’ the same as that of the 21st century edition of the city. Sample this:
Heat exudes from the walls and the earth; and the gutters give out a damp stink which comes in greater gusts where they meet a sewer to eject their dirty water into an underground canal. But men sleep with their beds over the gutters, and the cats and dogs quarrel over heaps of refuse which lie along the alleys and cross-roads.

Seems familiar?

It is not just in our times that culture types are prone to beating their chest over the loss of civilization in Delhi. Set in post-1857, the novel cries the same city crib:
But gone are the poets too, and gone is its culture. Only the coils of the rope, when the rope itself has been burnt, remain, to remind us of past splendour. Yet ruin has descended upon its monuments and buildings, upon its boulevards and by-lanes.

Been there, heard that.

One evening, after giving the haziri at the sufi shrine of Sarmad Shahid, I sat down on the Jama Masjid stairs. Looking far away at the Red Fort ramparts, I randomly opened a page in the novel and came upon this passage:

Below, across the road, were the tombs of Harray Bharay and Sarmad, and beyond across… the red walls of the Fort stretched far away. Below… sat man selling quails and canaries, bulbuls and nightingales… Still below… sat shopkeepers selling all sorts of second-hand nick-nacks and bric-a-brac from old china to bedsteads. On the northern steps… sat the quacks and druggists plying as usual a great trade in lizards’ oil… In one corner stood a man shouting in a dramatic tone, selling his medicine to people who had flocked around him.

By God, the scene is still the same, though now they also sell second-hand DVDs and fake iPods. The quacks, too, are present, including a hakeem who ‘cure’ illnesses by drawing out blood from his patients’ limbs.

Those unfamiliar with Old Delhi says that it is losing its charm: too filthy, too ghetto-like. The intellectuals point out that the migration of the upper crust Muslim gentry after the Partition led to Shahjanabad’s decay. Some of that could be true. But if we read Twilight in Delhi and then make a detour to the walled city, we would find that after so many changes, not much has really changed. The wealth and grandeur of yesteryear has perhaps died, the soul is still intact. Even the people, sometimes dressed in sherwanis, achkans and shararas, look similar to the novel’s various characters – Begum Nihal, Asghar, Mirza Shahbaz Beg and Bilqeece.

Indeed, while walking in the gallis, kuchas and havelis of Shahjanabad, I have often found myself flipping through Mr Ali’s novel. Trying to find out if the mohallas are now any different from their old description, I would quickly discover – no, they aren’t! Magic.