Book Review: M. Mukundan's "Delhi: A Soliloquy" is an elegy for innocence

Print edition : September 10, 2021
A nonchalant depiction of the personal tragedies of people as they unfold in Delhi during the war years in the 1960s and 1970s, the Emergency and the anti-Sikh riots.

THIS is a heart-rending and, at the same time, heart-warming novel by M. Mukundan, one of the pioneers of modernist Malayalam fiction. Mukundan has 17 full-length novels, 13 short story collections and a couple of screenplays to his credit. The novel’s entire action takes place in Delhi, a city where the author spent more than four decades of his life, and so it is essentially autobiographical in nature. For the most part, the author’s first-hand experiences and narrations from secondary and tertiary sources, coupled with his creative imagination, constitute the novel.

The literal translation of Delhi Gaathakal would be “Sagas of Delhi”, and it is appropriate because the novel is the result of the deft weaving of the lives of its main characters as they unfold in Delhi. Delhi: A Soliloquy, the title of the translated work, is equally valid because Sahadevan, the protagonist, is in the habit of talking to himself in his mind about everything that happens in his life—he is a novelist who keeps writing about his life in Delhi. He is also the main narrator of the novel, which however is presented mostly in third-person narrative situations.

The main action takes place between the time Sahadevan arrives in Delhi, in 1959, and when Safdar Hashmi is murdered by his political opponents, on January 2,1989, while he was staging his play, Halla Bol, near Ghaziabad. However, another character, Janakikkutty, is shown at the end of the novel, as photographed alongside Irom Sharmila, the activist from Manipur who had been on a hunger strike from 2000 to 2016. Therefore, the time span of the novel could be conjectured to be half a century.

I have lived in Delhi for more than two decades, from the late 1990s until recently, and the locales of most of the actions are close to my heart, having lived at least at a couple of those places—Andrews Ganj, Malviya Nagar and Inderpuri opposite Pusa Institute campus. I have passed through Kotla Mubarakpur, Jungpura, Moolchand, Lajpat Nagar, Lodhi Colony, Jor Bagh, Karbala, Connaught Place… hundreds of times. I have worked for nearly two decades in the Rabindra Bhavan building, at the Sahitya Akademi, on Mandi House roundabout near India Gate, and frequented the India International Centre in Lodhi Estate, the Press Club of India on Raisina Road, and the INS Building on Rafi Marg, on countless occasions. All this makes the novel “my own”.

The novel unfolds with Sreedharanunni dying of a heart attack on hearing the news of the India-China war that broke out on October 21, 1962. He is survived by his 33-year-old wife Devi and two children, 13-year-old Sathyanathan and five-year-old Vidya. Sahadevan is the mainstay for the bereaved family. So are the journalist Kunhikrishnan and his wife Lalitha. As Sahadevan moves in to share accommodation with Uttam Singh’s family, paying a rent, Uttam Singh’s wife, Gunjan Kaur, and daughters Jaswinder and little Pinky, gradually become his extended family members. Into this close family circle is admitted the angelic dreamer-artist Nenmanda Vasava Panicker, known as Vasu.

The 1962 war, the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, and the Emergency declaration in 1975, and their aftermath are depicted in all their possible horrors. The inhuman treatment of lower caste people by Brahmins and other higher castes, the violence against Muslims by the average ignorant but empowered Hindu fanatics, and the region-blind, who brand every south Indian a “Madrasi”, all these are depicted in strong shades of black. Deep black is the depiction of the inept, corrupt, and apathetic police force throughout, whose excesses during wartime and the Emergency are portrayed vividly. Delhi and its unalloyed crime, which Mukundan has portrayed in his short stories, “Delhi-1981” and “Delhi’s Criminals Turn Sadists”, come alive in the reader’s consciousness.

The novel’s main treatment is of Delhi with its teeming poor, destitute, starving, squalor-ridden population. The occasional glitter and glamour displayed is not as a mainstream characteristic but as a counterpoint and contrast to the inhumanity of hunger and deprivation.

Anyone who has read Mukundan’s early masterpiece, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil (On the Banks of the Mayyazhi), would be struck by the author’s unblinking, nonchalant depiction of the eventual loss of innocence of the main characters, in which their personal tragedies are raised to epic dimensions, as each of them exercises his or her own existential choices. We can see the same Mukundan in action towards the end of the novel—the seemingly ‘heartless’ narrator who lets his characters face their tragedies without so much as altering their course to something optimistic, except maybe in the case of a couple of them.

For example, Pinky, who lost her family members in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. Sahadevan rescues her and hands her over to her grand-uncle’s family in Gurdaspur. Or Rosily, the Nasrani girl Rosakkutty, with innocence showing in her eyes, who is tricked by a neighbour into being a call girl. Hailing from Kerala’s high ranges, she spends the prime years of her youth in Delhi to raise enough dowry to marry Jomon, her childhood sweetheart. Finally, she wrestles to get back to being her original self, returns to Kerala, marries Jomon and lives happily ever after, apparently (if the long sigh at the end of her long telephone conversation with Sahadevan does not point in another direction).

Or, in a perverse sense, Sathyanathan, who grew up in dire poverty, unconscionably ridding himself of the memories of the tragedies of all the members of his family and becoming successful in life, taking up a job on Wall Street in New York. Or Lalitha, who dotes on her Kunhikrishnan, but he dies of the torture he is subjected to during the Emergency. Lalitha then displays true grit in educating herself and getting to the top of a publishing company. These are the protagonists with different types of halos around them.

Of course, grey characters are also grand success stories. There is Georgekutty, Rosily’s pimp who goes on to become a factory owner with businesses all over the world and employing more than 500 people, and also Gulshan Wadhwa, Sahadevan’s employer who becomes a multi-billionaire through black money dealings but continues to maintain cordial relations with Sahadevan. Only these are the tales of redemption. All else die, perish or disappear, having been preys of casteism, communalism, circumstances, and history.

Sahadevan is the utterly innocent, selfless Mishkin-like soul who forgets his own life and loves and cherishes everyone else and lives on to tell their tales. He completes Delhi Gaathakal and hands over the manuscript to the author M. Mukundan. Mukundan publishes it in his own name, in deference to Sahadevan’s seemingly last wish (a bit of theatre of alienation put in here, in the form of an Afterword).

Female characters

Mukundan’s female characters are noted for their resilience, perseverance, personal integrity and fortitude, except in the case of Vidya, the tragic heroine of an ill-fated love story in which caste plays the villain. The most stoic and self-sacrificing is her mother, Devi, the wife of Sreedharanunni, the communist union leader and Central Secretariat employee who dies of heartbreak as his idol Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, breaks his ‘Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai’ promise and attacks India.

Devi, widowed at 33, is recruited as a Class-IV employee under the death-in-harness scheme. She leads the straight and narrow life, always on the brink of penury, yet upholding her dignity, bringing up Sathyanathan and Vidya (the Thiyya girl who grows up without being aware of her caste), all of whom wear threadbare clothes and worn-out footwear. Vidya’s disappearance (obvious murder by henchmen of her Brahmin lover’s father, the relative of the head priest of the Mathura Sreekrishna temple, a secret readers are privy to through a stage-whisper tactic in the narration—“She saw a humongous figure clad in a white dhoti moving towards her. That was the last thing she saw.”) haunts the reader through the rest of the novel.

Sathyanathan, who grows up into a fine young man, intelligent enough to secure admission in the prestigious St. Stephen’s College in open quota, gets a job as a journalist in The Economic Times and offers to support the mother in running the family. He becomes the comrade and partner of Janakikkutty, the bright daughter of the far-left leader Kunhikkannan mash (master), who is tortured and murdered during the Emergency. Eventually, he lets down his mother when he refuses to marry Janakikkutty, but prefers to live-in with her, with Devi living in the same house. This leads to the mother’s final rejection of all that she lived for over the last 27 years of her life, and she returns to Kerala, to “the breeze of Vrischikam and mango blossom”.

Lalitha insists on bearing Kunhikrishnan’s child despite discovering that he has low sperm count. She even goes to the fake Rohtak Baba’s ashram for divine blessings and makes an offering of all her gold ornaments to him. Eventually, she realises the futility of it all and lives a withdrawn life. Yet, she perseveres until she rebuilds her life after her husband’s death, becomes a successful publishing professional and adopts a child, whom she names “Indira” despite the harrowing experiences of her husband and her other loved ones during the Emergency.

The survival expert

Rosily is by far the most spectacular survival expert. She grew up in abject poverty in a family of migrants in the high ranges of Kerala and is naïve in her belief systems. She says she can never lie to a person because her father taught her that Jesus will be cross with anyone who lies. (This same father had, either through naivete or apathy, handed her over to Georgekutty when he offered to give her a job in Delhi—and also a bottle of rum and fifty rupees.) Through all those years, after her encounter with each customer she takes a bath with Dettol-laced water, prays to Jesus for forgiveness and goes to the Sacred Heart Cathedral every Sunday for the morning service. Initially, she planned to live in Delhi only for about five years, until she had collected enough money for her dowry, but it stretches to 15 years owing to unforeseen circumstances such as the Emergency. She eventually manages to reclaim her original identity as Rosakkutty, the bride of Jomon, who later goes to Dubai, taking up a job, and takes her and their daughter Elsy there on vacation.

Pinky dreams of becoming a hockey player and securing admission for medicine in the sports quota. She wants to raise enough dowry for herself, bringing dignity to her father, unlike her sister Jaswinder. The latter had to seduce her would-be husband Joginder, bringing shame upon her family and triggering constant fear in her father about her possible mistreatment or even dowry-death at the hands of her in-laws. Pinky is a breath of fresh air in the overall tragic atmosphere of the main narrative. In fact, Vidya and Pinky are the little princesses Sahadevan cherishes, after whose initials he names his firm as “V.P. Agencies”. The firm, located at Turkman Gate, gets razed during the infamous “Turkman Gate Demolition Incident”.

Sathyanathan, who appears to be Devi’s solace and succour initially, reveals himself to be the lurking self-seeker and latter-day pragmatist who parts ways with Janakikkutty, finding the JNU-educated and London PhD holder too austere and idealist for his taste, and migrates to the United States upon getting a plum job on Wall Street.

Vasu is the son of a retired District Collector, who leaves his family to pursue his art and see the world. He lives in his parallel world and is lost in himself, unaware of even his surroundings. He rejects the notion of possessions and is only mindful of his constant hunger, which he suffers silently most of the time. He too gets killed during the 1984 riots. This Camusian tragic character was the closest friend of Rosily. (Incidentally, although Rosily is friends with Sathyanathan well into the prime of his youth, until Devi disapproved of his association with her as “inappropriate company”, and also with Sahadevan, their relationship never turns sexual. They remain good friends, along with others, of whom Rosily makes fond enquiries during her long telephone conversation with Sahadevan.)

Sahadevan loves all these women as his sisters, equalling them to his own sisters Vanaja and Shyamala back home, striving to support them emotionally, morally and even financially. (He fails to raise enough money for Vanaja’s wedding in spite of his constant efforts from 1959, as he has to support the family by sending the major part of his monthly earnings home. When Vanaja is in her thirties, she despairs that it will be too late for her to bear children and chooses a husband for herself—a widower Muslim schoolteacher, Abdul Abdunnisar, who is a good and upright man. She has two children with him—Saiful Islam and Radha, presenting an ideal inter-community marriage. It is Abdunnisar who helps find another idealist schoolteacher, Balaraman mash, as husband for Shyamala. Sahadevan also aspires to support the poor carpenter Uttam Singh; Vasu; the impecunious Malayali barber Dasappan; and others who come into his sphere of affection. In the process, Sahadevan forgets to live for himself, does not acquire anything, remains single, and totters into his sickly old age.

The soliloquy could well be that of a desperate mother hen who strives to protect her brood against all odds and exits when there is nothing more to be done. Yes, Devi is the most engaging character of the novel. Her innocence and resolute virtue, sacrificing her youth at the age of 33, until she is ravaged by untimely old age at 60 through all her trials and travails, form the canvas on which the vast picture of this novel is painted.

To my mind, this is Mukundan’s most consummate, big-canvas novel, although I do take into account the other Delhi-based novel, Adithyanum Radhayum, Mattu Chilarum (Adithyan, Radha and Some Others), his first novel Delhi, the two Mahe-based novels Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, Daivathinte Vikritikal (God’s Mischiefs), and, of course, his enigmatic political novel Keshavante Vilapangal (Keshavan’s Lamentations, the Crossword Award winner, which I translated).

The unwavering skill and care with which the translators Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K. executed the English version is commendable. A joint venture like this can pose real challenges, but in this case the excellent outcome upholds the efforts. Worthy of special mention is the attention bestowed on leaving traces of the original in peculiar linguistic and cultural terms and usages.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor