Book: Twilight in Delhi
Author: Ahmed Ali
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
“In dinon garche dakkan mai hai badi qadr-e-sukhan
Kaun jaye “zauq” par dilli ki galiyan chhod kar”
Published in 1940, this novel on the capital is a necessary addition to all the other books written on the city. Quoting William Dalrymple in City of Djinns, he says, “Twilight in Delhi is not only a very fine novel, it is also an irreplaceable record of the vanished life and culture of pre-war Delhi.” If you’re as much charmed by Delhi as all those gone by (and the admins of this blog), you’d have an idea of what we’re getting at here.
I have a friend who has traveled around the world quite a bit. She says she does not romanticize cities. I don’t understand how. Cities are about people and the preservation. Moreover, people are about cities many times over. And that’s why this novel is an imperative meditation on Delhi, or as it should be rightfully called – Dilli. A novel that was almost not published until Virginia Woolf intervened and rooted for it. The publishers called it ‘subversive’, but her intervention has left us with history.
Ahmed Ali schooled at Aligarh and Lucknow universities. For a vocation, he taught in universities and was the head of Presidency College in Calcutta. During the partition of India, he was the British Council Visiting Professor to the University of China. When he tried to return to India in 1948, the then India’s ambassador to China did not let him and Ahmed Ali was forced to move to Pakistan. It is said that after he left India, on one of his travels his plane had to force land at Delhi. He refused to step outside saying this was not the place he knew. “It is not the Delhi it once was.”
How can it ever be? That’s why preservation.
Delhi was once a paradise,
Such peace had abided here;
But they have ravished its name and pride,
Remain now only ruins and care.
– Bahadur Shah Zafar
Set in the 1930s, Twilight in Delhi tell us the story of Mir Nahal and his family. To be quite honest, the story in itself isn’t a masterpiece, and if that’s what you’re after, you might as well not read the book. Twilight in Delhi is about the journey of its characters through our very own Dilli. Mir Nahal lives in a large house divided into two sections – one for men and one for the women. He goes to work every day and returns to fly his pigeons. He’s a large man with a mistress, he has a wife who can’t see clearly, and he is a skilled a kabootarbaz. Mir Nahal’s son Asgher is now of marriageable age and being a young boy, he’s enamored with women and sex. He visits the kotha, but then falls in love with his friend’s sister Bilqeece Jan. He knows his parents will refuse the match as she has the blood of a Mughal and according to his parents, the Saiyyed’s cannot mix with Mughals.
The story then progresses as Asgher does everything he can to marry Bilqeece and then finally tires of his own fantasy about marriage. In my opinion, that’s simply because no one taught Asgher how to be a man. He is always high on the rosy side of a life he imagines, but one he cannot live. As this conflict resolves and complicates itself, the rest of the family is shown living sometimes under repression, in heartbreak, in superstition, and above all the changing of their city due to colonial rule.
Certain themes make the reading stark. The heat of Delhi makes an appearance ever so often. During a sandstorm, Begum Nihal tells her house help to place a broom under a leg of the cot. She says the storm is because the djinns are going for a wedding. In another scene, men are gathered around a large vessel in which milk is being boiled. A man buys a kulhad of milk, drinks it, and throws the kulhad away. Then, a cat licks milk off a kulhad while life goes on. Mir Nahal’s passive-aggressive rivalry with his neighbor over the flying of pigeons is a constant. He goes to the market to buy the best breed of pigeons and takes care of them better than his own children. One night when he leaves the door of the pen open, a snake kills many of his pigeons. Mir Nahal’s sadness drips off the page.
Twilight in Delhi is a portrait of a city and its culture. Of course, it also gives a glimpse of the life of a Muslim family back in the day. The writing is very simple and relatable. There’s enough mention of all the magic that pervaded (and still pervades) Delhi – hakims, fakirs, djinns, chandni chowk, sher, poets, chamars, rajahs, elephants, greatness, despair and everything else that makes the city what it is.
When one reads the book, one realises that it is true – so what if prosperity abounds the Deccan? Why would one leave the lanes of Delhi?