Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)
Fiction that resists forgetfulness
ear 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 are conversant with the overwhelming gloom and uncertainty characteristic of every sphere of life today.
Mukundan’s novel 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
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 on radish, which is the cheapest vegetable to procure. 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.
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Sahadevan, the lead narrator survives Delhi by doing odd jobs. He lives alone. 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. 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.
Delhi – A Soliloquy 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. The novel demonstrate how small lives are permanently changed by the big events of history. While history is often clinical in its treatment of such events, fiction humanises them by giving a face and body to house these accounts, and the translators, Fathima EV and Nandakumar K, deserve special mention for 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 in a city that makes living difficult.