Not too long ago, Delhi was lost in literary oblivion. Grappling with the virtual absence of any credible literature based on the capital, the city paled in front of Mumbai — a city whose unique chemistry has been celebrated over the years by writers such as Salman Rushdie, Rohinston Mistry, Vikram Chandra, and Suketu Mehta.
But the national capital's written-word winter could well be in its last stages — the optimism based on several Delhi-specific books published in the past 12 months.
By Aatish Taseer
Price: Rs 495
A fascinating insight into the lives —social and sexual — of Delhi's the newly rich upper middle class
Edited by Hirsh Sawhney
Publisher : Harper Colllins
Price: Rs 399
A collection of searing short stories that take you to the darkest corners of the city's physical and emotional landscape.
By Krishan Pratap Singh
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 195
A racy novel set in Luyten's Delhi gives a peep into shady political dealings in the corridors of power. Well, if you do not like it, the publisher promises to return your money.
By Mridula Koshy
Price: Rs 295
This collection of short stories captures the lives of the working class people on Delhi's streets
By Tarquin Hall
Price: Rs. 425
A mystery novel based on upper middle class Delhi.
Check out these titles: The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer; Delhi Noir, edited by Hirsh Sawhney; Delhi Durbar by Krishan Pratap Singh; The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall; If It Is Sweet by Mridula Koshy; Delhi: Adventures in a Mega City by Sam Miller.
These books, authored by a new breed of young writers, are not about the city's glorious past; they evocatively capture the texture of life in contemporary Delhi, warts and all. “There is so much drama in Delhi all the time. After all, it’s a city that controls the destinies of more than a billion people. I wonder why such a city could be ignored by writers for so long,” says Krishan Pratap Singh, 34, a Delhi-based banker-turned-writer, whose recently published Delhi Durbar, a political thriller, is set in Lutyens' Delhi.
“People are curious to know what goes on inside Lutyens’ bungalows,” he adds.
The writers of these books — some of them are foreign journalists married to Indians — say one of the reasons for the sudden spurt of interest in Delhi has to do with the extraordinary change the city has undergone in the past decade.
Delhi, they say, has come a long way from being considered a staid, sleepy capital to being a bustling cosmopolitan city.
Tarquin Hall, 40, a British journalist and author of The Case of The Missing Servant, a murder mystery, which offers vivid descriptions of the city’s various localities, feels Delhi was not as vibrant or as intriguing as Mumbai until quite recently. In the 80s and 90s, he says, Delhi had a reputation of being quite boring.
“People stayed at home in the evenings; maybe they went to Rajpath for an ice cream and that was about it. But Delhi is going through yet another reincarnation, expanding at an incredible rate, and so it provides a fascinating backdrop," says Hall who is married to Indian and divides his time between Delhi and London.
A new social reality
“Unlike ten years back, Delhi is now a melting pot of ideas, people and cultures. It surprises me every day; its every footpath has a story,” says Sam Miller, the author of Delhi: Adventures in a Mega City. Like Hall, Miller is also a British journalist, and is married to an Indian.
Says Mridula Koshy, 40, the author of If It Is Sweet, a collection of short stories set in Delhi. “I migrated to the US in 1984. When I returned in 2004, the most remarkable change I witnessed was that the city had become much wealthier; lifestyles had changed dramatically. But at the same time economic disparities and inequalities had also increased a lot. The city is much harsher on working class than when I grew up here. This shocks and fascinates me as a writer.”
Her book evocatively reflects the struggles of the city's working classes.
Good urban fiction, says Hirsh Sawhney, 30, the editor of Delhi Noir, is often dependent on interaction among disparate individuals. Delhi, however, has been segregated into various colonies and regions.
“It’s not been a walking city. Until the construction of the Metro, people from different backgrounds didn't mix or interact on public transport. All these factors might have curbed the quantity and type of interaction that occurs in public spaces, and in turn the grist available for fiction that focuses on the city,” says Sawhney.
Many believe a reason why there have not been many Delhi books, especially the ones that take a critical look at the city, is the fear of the city's power structures — government, big businesses, foreign embassies — that define the city.
“I think there is certainly a grain of truth to this theory,” says Sawhney.
But now that is changing. “The writers of my generation are not fearful of writing about the unsavoury side of the city; they are not worried about being politically correct as they write about Delhi,” says Krishan Pratap Singh.
Loving Delhi, in letter and spirit
The new breed of writers is fascinated by the myriad features of the city: its greenery, its new glitzy malls, its street life, and, of course, its politics. “Geographically, I find Delhi's green spaces incredibly inspiring. Jahapana Forest and Deer Park are entire wildernesses set inside a teeming Metropolis," he says. Tarquin Hall is equally eulogising.
“Delhi gives you a sense of history like few cities I know. Passing through it in a taxi is like being in a time machine — in the space of half an hour you can see Lodhi tombs, British bungalows, Mughal forts and sprawling post-partition colonies and markets. Where else have you got Mughal and British cities sitting side-by-side as well as call centres and malls?" he says.
"I do not think Mumbai has many stories left to be told. It's now time for Delhi stories," says Krishan Pratap Singh.
That, it seems, is a fact, not fiction!