FLAME in the news | June 4, 2021
Set in Delhi through the 1960s to the mid 1980s, this novel pulls the reader into the vortex of Malayalis living in Delhi and demonstrates how small lives are permanently changed by the big events of history

“Fear will soon be the only emotion left” says a character in M Mukundan’s Delhi - A Soliloquy. This sentiment feels rather prescient for our time. Originally published in Malayalam as Delhi Gadhakal in 2011, there are several factors which render the novel contemporary – its references to war, Emergency, death is conversant with the overwhelming gloom and uncertainty characteristic of every sphere of life today.

Amidst the all-pervasive despair unfolding in the capital and other parts of the country, I started reading Mukundan’s novel which journeys across various tumultuous moments in Delhi through the 1960s to the mid-1980s. Fiction resists forgetfulness, and the tragedy and mourning experienced by the characters can be related to the tragedy of the present faced by millions in the country.

In 1959, Sahadevan arrives in Delhi to find a job and support his family back home in Kerala. The novel soon pulls us into a vortex of Malayalis living in Delhi – Shreedharanunni, Devi, Kunhikrishnan, Lalitha, Vasu, Rosily, Satyanathan, Janakikutty, amongst others, who arrive in the capital seeking a new life or better prospects. We meet them through their encounters with Sahadevan and the novel gradually reveals the minutiae of migrant lives in the capital. While they attempt to build new lives, the capital undergoes major crises – war with China, the refugee crisis, the Emergency, riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

These catastrophes are memorialised through their impact on the lives of the characters in the novel. Shreedharanunni dies of shock when China attacks India. Devi’s life is permanently changed after her husband’s death. For years, Devi and her family survive eating radish, which is the cheapest vegetable to procure. She wears nylex sarees, cheaper and easier to maintain than cotton sarees. Kunhikrishnan is a critic of the Emergency. He is imprisoned and subjected to inhuman torture. His wife Lalitha learns to survive in the big city in his absence. Then there are Vasu and Rosily. Vasu is a gifted artist with no aspirations whatsoever. He is a wanderer whose life comes to an abrupt end during the Delhi riots. Rosakutty is rechristened Rosily in Delhi. She arrives in Delhi to organise money for her dowry and sells her body to make the desired amount. Sahadevan, the lead narrator survives Delhi by doing odd jobs. He is a compassionate, helpful man. Sahadevan lives alone. He could spend several days without human company but ‘not survive a single day without talking to himself’. He loves travelling by bus which he believes ‘strengthened human relationships’. He is also trying to write a novel about his experiences in the city. The novel remains unfinished but Mukundan’s novel is perhaps the culmination of Sahadevan’s story. Maybe his story found a writer in Mukundan.

I am struck by Mukundan’s eye for detail. Reflecting on the estrangement of language through Devi, he writes, “She didn’t know Hindi, and no one spoke Malayalam. For a few months, she had to live without language. For the first time in her life, she understood what it meant to be isolated.” Different facets of the city such as its casteism, Islamophobia, and the oppression of the refugees are revealed through the characters and their experiences. There are many instances in the novel which demonstrate how small lives are permanently changed by the big events of history. I am using the ‘small versus big’ binary to suggest how facile these distinctions are. While history is often clinical in its treatment of such events, fiction humanizes them by giving a face and body to house these accounts and the translators, Fathima EV and Nandakumar K deserve a special mention in accomplishing this remarkable project. I can’t think of another translation in recent times rendered with such effortless ease.

Mukundan captures a tempestuous Delhi primarily relying on his own experiences of having lived in the capital for over four decades. The novel in some ways also constitutes a biography of the writer navigating crucial moments in the socio-political history of a newly independent nation. It is also important to note that these stories are narrated by the migrant Malayali who becomes an eventual insider through his experiences of living in the city.

Storytelling thus is the migrant’s way of claiming his unique place and identity in the novel. The city is seen through his lens. At the same time, while Sahadevan is surrounded by Hindi, he is attempting to write a novel in Malayalam about Delhi. Perhaps both Sahadevan and Mukundan use language to address what they lack in their Delhi lives - the intimacy and immediacy of expression in Malayalam. The novel gives them a voice, in a language of their choosing. Delhi; A Soliloquy is a compelling account of the transience of life and human emotion in a city that makes living difficult.

Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.