The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash (trans Jason Grunebaum ). 236 pp. UWA Publishing.
The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir.
In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, these are no tales of the exotic Orient; Prakash does not address himself to a readership for whom the word’s strongest connotation is a beturbaned man perched upon a bed of nails. The India of Prakash’s stories is a gritty, rapidly urbanizing place where the price of human life is cruelly low. When the dispossessed have all “vanished from this new Delhi of wealth and wizardry,” the imprint they leave behind will be
. . . like the tears of an ill-fated fakir, leaving only the tiniest trace of moisture on the ground after he’s got up and gone. The dark spot on the ground from his spit and silent tears serves as a protest against the injustice of his time.
The fakir, in Hindi both a begging pauper and a religious ascetic, becomes a silent observer of this injustice and perhaps the ghost of a social conscience in the face of upheaval.
The Walls of Delhi gives voice to a somewhat less silent protest than the fakir’s evanescent spittle. Delving into the tunneled world inhabited by the “creatures of the city,” Prakash draws his narratives from the lives that India’s economic liberalization has pushed even further to the margins. The three pieces in this collection—the titular short story and two novellas, “Mohandas” and “Mangosil”—each depict individual struggles for survival against a backdrop of societal corruption: a poor cleaner who stumbles on a cache of black money; a low-caste man whose achievements are stolen by an upper-caste identity thief; and a prodigiously bright slum-born boy with a malformed, ever-expanding head, who cannot access a cure.
Through the narration of first-person alter-egos positioned just on the edge of the action, Prakash observes his protagonists’ suffering at close range. His narratorial perspective is intensely, almost aggressively political: frequent addresses to the reader provide historical and journalistic context, taking on capitalism, globalization, Western warmongering, and Indian casteism with an exasperated urgency. The city is a particularly fraught space for Prakash, one where the forces that threaten his protagonists’ existence seem to converge and gain strength. There people who have been “cast out of their own space and time . . . stand in wait for destruction at the end.” This destruction is ultimately wrought by the city itself, when “the engineers of the empire of money” turn “even a dirty sprawl of shacks . . . into a Metro Rail, a flyover, a shopping mall, a dam, a quarry, a factory, or a five-star-plus hotel.” (“Tirichh,” another story by Prakash and perhaps the one that distills most potently the organized terror of urban space, is sadly not included in this collection.)
For all their political fervor, the stories in The Walls of Delhi are concerned with human beings and their most quotidian preoccupations. Some of the collection’s most lyrical and intimate moments pivot on food or sex. In one scene, an erotic encounter between husband and wife on a riverbank seems to echo the play of the god Krishna with the gopis or cowherd girls, evoking a mythical space of eternal bliss amidst backbreaking toil. And the blushing giggle of a young man with a messy head of hair, his mouth full of food, is transformative to the woman who feeds him:
It was like the end of a lifesaving rope that dangled in front of the black hole of her hellish life. She decided to grab it and run away, not knowing whether it was out of love or from an intense desire to be free.
Prakash has a keen eye for the ridiculous and can find humor in the most unlikely of situations. Far from romanticizing his downtrodden protagonists, he has a wry appreciation for their human foibles as well as their oppressors’. The opening story centers on Ramnivas, a young man who works as a sweeper to provide for his wife and kids and keeps a teenage girlfriend on the side. After stumbling on a massive cache of black money hidden in the walls of an upscale gym, his family’s fortunes are transformed and his philandering revitalized; his newfound solvency secures everyone’s tacit acceptance. When Ramnivas’ fate inevitably begins to catch up with him, it’s hard to suppress a smile as a police inspector, however sleazy, skewers his feeble excuses:
Uh-huh. You need an AC hotel room in order to polish off a fifth of single malt with your underage sister-in-law? And then let me guess: The two of you were singing holy bhajans and clapping your hands? I can just see it.
Yet this sequence is in some ways more humorous in translation than in the original, where the officer’s use of contemptuously familiar pronouns for Ramnivas renders the power imbalance all the more acutely palpable. The juxtaposition of booze and bhajans is funny enough in both tongues, but the deck is so stacked against Ramnivas, and indeed all of Prakash’s sympathetic characters, that the levity never lasts long. The momentum of impending destruction is relentless, inescapable.
The dispossession of Prakash’s protagonists is so complete, the violence they face so outrageous, that he seems at times to dare the reader to take the easy way out. The stories are infused with just a touch of the folkloric—hidden treasure, miraculous conception by an aging couple, a mysterious disease that causes a boy’s head to expand as he grows preternaturally wise—and these slant flirtations with fantasy make wishful extrapolation all too tempting. It would be far more comforting to think of the narrative trajectories themselves as too absurd or depraved to be a reflection of lived human experience.
Yet Prakash ensures that such escape fantasies are carried out in the light of day, a feat most powerfully accomplished in the poignant “Mohandas.” The eponymous protagonist is a bright, educated, industrious paragon of his downtrodden caste community who is predictably and consistently snubbed in favor of high-caste slackers. He also shares his given name and various other suggestive biographical details with that most famous of Indians, Mahatma Gandhi. Having planted the seeds of this parallel, Prakash interrupts the narrative and addresses the suddenly self-conscious reader:
Please stop for a moment and tell the truth: did you begin to get the feeling that I’d gone and started telling you some kind of encoded, symbol-laden tale? Look at Mohandas . . . he shares the same history as the Mahatma. . . .
I’d also like to . . . solemnly affirm that the similarity of names is honestly and truly just a coincidence. . . . It isn’t some symbolic story or allegory or coded fable. . . . Mohandas is a living, breathing human being, and his life is at this moment in grave danger. Though you can count on my having played a little fast and loose with the truth, as I always do.
This “solemn affirmation” cannot, of course, be constrained to its face value—no assertion to the contrary can efface the fact that Mohandas’s similarity to Gandhi is both symbolic and allegorical. However much we read into this contrivance, though, Prakash’s Mohandas is very much his own being, and the narrative stubbornly refuses to be reduced to simple allegory. The need to interpret and fantasize is natural, it seems to suggest, but the ultimate yardstick of this fictional world must be as cruel and alienating as reality itself.
The referential landscape of Prakash’s stories is expansive, ranging from canonical Hindi literary figures such as Premchand and Mukhtibodh as far afield as Osip Mandelstam and Allen Ginsberg. Yet for all their scope, their intended audience is evidently local. The experience of reading them in English serves only to accentuate that the readership to whom they are addressed is neither Anglophone nor faraway, but rather one for whom Delhi is, at least emotionally, “not far at all.” This distance is bridged to an extent by Jason Grunebaum’s thoughtful translation, which provides clarity and context without resorting to commentary. Yet the displacement of translation cannot be erased—nor should it be. It augments the strangeness and power of Prakash’s narratives, which offer a window into an internal dialogue whose raw intensity is rarely encountered in English-language literature from the subcontinent.
María Helga Guðmundsdóttir is a translator based in Seltjarnarnes, Iceland, and has written about Icelandic and Indian literature for The Quarterly Conversation.
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