The Ghosts Of Khushwant Singh's Delhi


“All my life I have been tormented by ghosts. Since Delhi has more ghosts than any other city in the world, life in Delhi can be one long nightmare. I have never seen a ghost nor do I believe they exist. Nevertheless for me they are real.” 
Khushwant Singh, Delhi: A novel (p 164)
Khushwant Singh's monumental work, Delhi: A novel, is, in the sense of the passage above, a novel about ghosts: of those who lie buried in beautiful stone mausoleums, of those who were thrown into unmarked graves, of those who were burnt on the ghats of the Yamuna and of those who became carrion for the city's vultures. It is a novel about all the blood that has been shed in the triangular region of the North Indian plain demarcated by the ridge in the West and the South and the river in the East. It is a lament for an endless sequence of murders of brother by brother and for betrayals of lovers and fathers. It is a celebration of the seasons and the trees and the flowers, and of the life led in this city by the river through the generations. It is an old man’s admonition to the young, a free spirit’s “up yours” to blinkered puritans, and a writer’s querulous and occasionally exuberant attempt to speak truth not just to the powers of the time when the book was written, but to power across time.

An out-and-out bestseller in India when it was first published, Delhi has rarely been acknowledged as an ambitious and powerful literary work. Despite being one of perhaps only two Indian English novels, along with Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, to grapple with the 1984 riots directly, Khushwant Singh’s magnum opus has received little serious critical attention. Even Amitav Ghosh, while explicitly bemoaning the absence of literary responses to the 1984 riots, omitted to mention Khushwant Singh's novel. This regrettable omission occurs in Ghosh’s essay “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi”  where the writer describes his personal encounter with the happenings in Delhi in November 1984. He also explains that the primary literary concern that underlay his own response to the 1984 riots, The Shadow Lines, comes from his reading of the essay “Literature and War” by the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan who says: “The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon—completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth—is an artistic decision.” The reference here is to the depiction of violence and Karahasan is particularly critical of “people who observe and experience the most horrendous suffering of their neighbors as a mere aesthetic excitement.” The concerns engendered by his reading of this essay pushed Ghosh to move descriptions of violence offstage and focus on the lives of people affected by it instead. But Khushwant Singh had already shown, in the novel Delhi that was published around the same time as The Shadow Lines, and some years before Ghosh’s essay, that it is possible to depict violence in a way that forces us to confront questions of goodness and truth.

The question that Ghosh asked in 1995 is still pertinent as we approach the 30th anniversary of the anti-Sikh violence. Why has it been so difficult for Indian English novelists to face up to the 1984 riots? Ghosh's own The Shadow Lines, started a few months after the riots veers into the past and away from Delhi to Kolkata, Dhaka and London. But, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, there is no work that speaks as directly and fearlessly to the horror that was visited on Delhi that year as Khushwant Singh’s novel. And this despite the fact that those few fateful days of November 1984 appear in just 15 out of almost 400 pages of the book; 15 pages that, coming, as they do, at the very end of the book, at the very end of a long and poignant telling of Delhi’s history, transform the moment of violence into pure pathos and prevent it from ever being reduced to mere spectacle.


The framing narrative of Delhi is a desultory first-person account of the day-to-day life of a Sikh man whose first name we are never told. He is in his fifties when we first meet him, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and lives by himself with a “cook-bearer” who waits on him, and a mentally unstable Sikh chowkidar called Budh Singh. Mr Singh, the narrator, makes a living as a freelance writer and occasional tourist guide, and thrives on the unending supply of free Scotch and bored sexual partners made available by Delhi's two hundred diplomatic missions. He is a member of a presumably informal group called the “old cock network” which appears to act as a clearinghouse of fornicatory opportunities. Immensely knowledgeable about the monuments of Delhi and clearly in love with the city he calls home, Singh is a sensitive sort whose sensitivity does not prevent him from taking his pleasure where he might find it: When we first meet him he has just returned from a trip overseas and is showing Lady Jane Hoity-Toity, a very minor English royal, around archaeological sites in the vicinity of Delhi in the hope that he will eventually get to sleep with her. It is an easy life in the postcolonial capital in the early years of the republic for a professional scrounger like Singh. Opening the picnic basket packed for her by her host, the President of India, Lady Jane tells Singh: “Help yourself to anything you like—Scotch, champagne, beer, gin—all on your old President.”  

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