Delhi by Khushwant Singh

(First published 1990)

It’s an usual novel; in part historical fiction and in part an invented story; in part a collection of independent short stories and in part a tale of a degenerate Delhiwala, but, taken in whole, it is an extremely rich depiction of the history and culture of Delhi.

It is, primarily, a story of the city of Delhi from the medieval till modern times. Two sets of narratives run simultaneously. First is the story of a journalist who returns to his native city after “having his fill of whoring in foreign lands”. Out of work, he sets out to explore his native city in the footsteps of an archeology historian. He accidently meets a hermaphrodite prostitute, a hijra, falls in love with her and moves her to his house. Through their dialogue, their outings and picnics, and their uninhibited sexual encounters, the geography and culture of Delhi comes alive.

The second set of stories is stand alone, independent pieces of narrative set in important periods of the history of Delhi. The stories are brilliantly told in the first person of figures such as Nadir Shah, Emir Taimur (Tamerlene), Aurangzeb Alamgir, Mir Taqi Mir and Bahadur Shah Zafar. They were prominent people, the attackers and the defenders, who tell their stories as they must have lived them.

There are more characters set in the times of Ghiyasuddin Balban and Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya which take the reader back in time and make them a part of the setting. There is a semi autobiographical story of an entrepreneurial family which plays a major role in laying the foundations of a new city off the historical metropolis of Delhi, which was soon to be known as New Delhi, now the capital of India.

In the end, the novel narrates first person accounts of the upheaval of Partition and ends with the murder of thousands of Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indra Gandhi. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of not only Delhi but of the whole Indian Subcontinent. My rating 5/5. Get it on AMAZON.

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