Ten years after the original was published, the English translation of the book, ‘Delhi: a Soliloquy’, won the JCB Prize for Literature this year.

A mostly black and white book cover with Delhi written in red on top of it, against a black and white backgroundPhoto courtesy - Anoop NE
Features Books Sunday, December 19, 2021 - 14:45

When Sahadevan steps down at the Delhi railway station for the first time, he is only 20, carrying with him the meager belongings of a young man who’s known poverty for long. Over the next few decades, he strips off a few layers of poverty and sends home to Kerala the bits he saves every month until he becomes poor again, like that’s the only way of life he knows to live. But more than anything else, he turns into a witness of the most tumultuous years in Delhi, talking to himself about it day and night, and silently recording them all in a manuscript. Sahadevan appears to come out of the story that he is a part of, to narrate it like an outsider. That’s when you wonder how much of Sahadevan is derived from M Mukundan, the writer of Delhi Gadhakal where Sahadevan exists, along with a number of others, whom you cannot forget long after the novel is over.

The book, 10 years old, won the JCB Prize for Literature this year for its English translation, Delhi: a Soliloquy (translated by Fathima EV, Nandakumar K). Mukundan, the writer known to Malayalis for his Mayyazhi Puzhayude Theerangalil and Deivathinte Vikrithikal among other great novels, has been in Delhi for as many years as Sahadevan. He has witnessed most of what Sahadevan did. Unsurprisingly, chapters of the novel sometimes turn into long-form reports of the major events between the years of 1959 and 1989 – three wars, the Emergency, and the anti-Sikh riots among them.

Read: ‘Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil’: M Mukundan’s classic on Mahe brings history alive

Reading about the wars in a history textbook is not the same. You don’t see it through the account of someone who has been there, in the thick of it all. Somehow Sahadevan, even as a young novice in Delhi, appears to know the movements of the city more than a local person. Every time there is bad news coming, he senses it, like a guard dog that smells danger. Sreedharan Unni, the man who welcomes Sahadevan to Delhi, gives him a space in his home and finds him a job, but does not have the premonitions his young friend has. A poor Communist with a happy family, Sreedharan Unni is shaken by the news of China’s attack on India in 1962. The man has hung a photo of China’s first premier Zhou Enlai on the wall of his house. Looking at it disbelievingly, his heart stops beating and he falls dead at 39. Devi, his wife, does not shatter despite constantly reminiscing about an old bicycle ride with Sreedharan Unni, in the beginning of their marriage. She gets his job at the Secretariat and looks after the children, a boy of 13 and a girl of eight.

Every war is somehow personalised in Mukundan’s telling. Like the Indo-Chinese war that killed a poor Communist from Kerala, the India Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 affected the lives of the ordinary people on the street. Through the sensitive Sahadevan, unknown agonies of a time long gone by become real. He is a hesitant writer, taking many decades to finish his manuscript of Delhi, but he lets you into his thoughts. It is important that Sahadevan talks to himself so much. Even though you don’t agree with all his views, you know he is reliable as a teller of tales. His kinship with a few families and individuals brings even more perspectives, ideals, and sometimes blatant indifference to the whole affair.

One of them is a Malayali couple, Kunjukrishnan and Lalitha, living in better conditions because the former is a journalist. Lalitha, little exposed to the ways of the world and wanting a child more than anything, interestingly grows more than anyone else as the years go by. Sathyanathan and Vidya, Sreedharan and Devi’s children, have different endings, both signifying types of existence forced by an evolving city. Two other characters emerge in the form of Vasu, an anarchist artist who appears to care for nothing in the world, and Rosily, a woman who has to earn a dowry to go back and marry her lover.

Sahadevan moves house a number of times, bringing to the picture more representations of the society he inhabits. A Sikh family becomes like an extended family, a barber called Dasappan turns into a friend. Nearly every character becomes a victim of the situations Delhi throws at its people every few years. The worst of it all comes with the Emergency of 1975. By then you have crossed 16 years with Sahadevan in Delhi, the characters are so familiar, their homes too dear to be destroyed and torn apart. Unfortunately, the lot with Sahadevan come with opinions that shatter their lives. One is put in jail, his hands broken. Another is beaten to near death. A third joins thousands of other men on whom unscientific vasectomies are forced by the government. Sadly, you can’t even find comfort in the thought that this is fiction. Mukundan’s fiction takes place in history. People died, lost freedom, lost abilities to procreate and led far too miserable lives in those terrible years.

The lesser-known Turkman gate demolition of 1976 is also written about in detail through the eyes of Sahadevan who loses the company he builds through the years. Others around him lose more. The incident simply didn’t get reported in the next day’s papers. The authorities had not wanted it.

After 1977, when the Emergency was finally lifted and the power changed hands, there were a few years of peace. But by then, hardened by their experiences, idealists have turned materialists, and those who came to Delhi with dreams had lost hope or whole lives. Sahadevan must have caught that fever of inactivity when as a man who lost it all, he never tries to rebuild his life. His family back home, helped on by the little he used to send, builds lives on their own, tells him off for forgetting them, and later forgets him themselves. Curiously, Sahadevan never falls in love, even though the matter of a woman is raised several times. He gets old too fast.

By his mid-40s, he is weak and walks like an old man when the anti-Sikh riots erupt in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s killing. The Sikh family Sahadevan considered his own is at the mercy of men scouting around for the blood of anyone with a turban or looking remotely like a Sikh. Does it never end, you ask, as once again the families and faces that Mukundan had made familiar go through such misery. The family is only a representation that makes you feel for the thousands who suddenly become helpless in their own homes.

Years pass on and Sahadevan stops his manuscript at the end of the 1980s. Daily helpings of Old Monk rum and ceaseless smoking puts him in a hospital bed at 50. But he makes sure the story he has been dying to tell is published. If he had waited another three years, he would have gone through the Babri Masjid demolition and a whole different set of riots and stories of hatred between humans that his sensitive mind could not fathom. If Mukundan has to write about the years after 1989, he may just have to find another Sahadevan, many folds stronger in the mind.

Also read: Kerala tea-seller couple wrote with admirable honesty about their travel experiences

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