December 5, 2012 by markstani
There’s a lot of great writing coming out of India these days that focuses on the nation’s dark and not-so-hidden underbelly. Jeet Thayil’s opium-addled ‘Narcopolis’ is up for just about every award going, and rightly so. Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’, a searing real-life survey of life in a Mumbai slum, carried off the Pulitzer Prize. They are both works of serious strength that in their own way, undermine their nation’s claims to be a 21st century super-power.
The Walls Of Delhi by Uday Prakash (pub. UWA Press), which has been shortlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, can more than hold its own in such elevated company. It’s a blistering, harrowing account of the chronic poverty and endemic corruption afflicting so much of Indian society today.
Its subject matter makes it no easy read, as Prakash is unflinching in his portrayal of life among some of India’s invisible communities. But he writes with an almost folkloric zeal, and the kind of care for his characters that makes his prose absolutely compelling. If the Hindi tradition (I am told) is for story-telling deeply rooted in social realism, then Prakash has remained true to those roots, but added a magical twist. His writing has lost none of its urgency in its superb translation from the original Hindi by American Jason Grunebaum.
So, as I was saying, if you’re in Delhi, and things are such that an endless nightmare loops in your head all night long, and, in a fit of restlessness and depression, you go out wandering in the middle of the night, or right before daybreak, then you’ve seen them: the mass of human beings skulking out of Coronation Park, Kingsway Camp, loping toward Raj Ghat on Mall Road. The dark of the night hasn’t fully dissipated, and dawn is still a hazy mystery, while you watch a great mass of broken, maimed, crippled, halfway-human beings, like characters from a Fellini or Antionioni film, as they quietly pass into the capital. They’re like a group of survivors of a devastating bombing campaign from a twentieth-century war, who pick themselves out of the rubble in the city that was the scene of the carnage, and carry their wounded bodies to a place of refuge, in search of a final protector.
‘The Walls Of Delhi’ actually takes the form of three stand-alone novellas. In the eponymous opening tale, a sweeper stumbles across a room full of counterfeit money and whisks his underage mistress off on a trip to see the Taj Mahal: a trip underpinned by the unspoken acknowledgement that such lavish escapism can only ultimately lead to tragedy.
In the deeply affecting ‘Mohandas’, a young man works hard to deny his low-caste fate through education, only to find his rightful job at the local coal mine has been denied him by a higher-caste rival who has stolen his identity.
In ‘Mangosil’, a baby is born with a rare disorder that causes its head to continually expand. Its loving parents, unable to afford the bribes that will afford it a better chance of survival, become ever more desperate in their search for a cure.
If the three stories are separate, they come together to paint a tremendously vivid portrait of life in India away from the economic boom and the stereotypical Slumdogs: the parts of the nation – be they city back-streets or destitute rural communities – the foreigners did not see when they flocked to Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
You can almost sense Prakash having put this collection together specifically to serve as a jab in the ribs to those who were temporarily blinded by the gloss of those Games. There is a fearlessness about his writing and his outspoken criticism of the establishment that positions him as something of an agent provocateur on behalf of the dispossessed: his 2008 novel ‘The Girl With The Golden Parasol’, which directly challenged some of India’s most entrenched caste assumptions, led to him being effectively estranged from the literary and cultural establishment.
Prakash, it appears, writes a lot from personal experience. That is to his own great credit, and his nation’s shame. It’s fantastic that this book has been recognised by the DSC Prize jury. For anyone with even a passing interest in India today, ‘The Walls Of Delhi’ ought to prove a thoroughly worthwhile read.