‘Twilight In Delhi’ By Ahmed Ali – A Review

The British had only built a new capital outside the city walls. The present rulers have removed the last vestige on which the old culture could have taken its stand and are moving it farther away towards Indraprastha, affirming the prophecy of the book: Seven Delhis have fallen, and the eighth has gone the way of its predecessors, yet to be demolished and built again. Life, like the phoenix, must collect the spices of its nest and set fire to it, and arise resurrected out of the flames.

To me, personally, Delhi is a rogue city. It is that city which has the smell of power in the air, the high-handedness of the money and corruption, the lofty words with hollowed purposes, promises unkept; the city which rapes its women and colors them in its own shade of darkness; the city which has miseries and mysteries around the next corner; the city which had glory and poverty stark clear; the city which brings awe and disgust. I have been to it only twice, and both the times as a visitor. The loathe I have towards Delhi could be best explained by the fact that I never tried for a job there until this day, although I do actively look for the best opportunities in other metropolitan cities of India. And, I should add, I am wrong in my judgment.

My shroud of wrong impressions got pierced and tore by William Dalrymple’s The City Of Djinns. Yet, for all its beautyTwilight in Delhi, it didn’t make me fall in love with Delhi although it greatly helped me to understand it. Lo and behold, came Ahmed Ali with this book, who resurrected this city with all the emotions and liveliness vividly that one’s heart goes to Delhi, to look at the city differently once done with reading.

More than the city, the novel evokes the lifestyle of Delhites of early 1900’s – the year when King George was coronated and the British brought the city under its command fully. It looks at the history through the eyes of an old man, Mir Nihal, who was much alive during the 1857 Mutiny and during the 1911 coronation of the King and continues to live until the dreaded year of 1919, when the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre took place. Much like himself and his family, the city slowly weans away, until the power of Lord (be it the God, or the King, and that depends upon the reader) and he stands as a hapless witness to the slow degradation of a country and a civilization.

Unless someone has come to Twilight in Delhi through Dalrymple, I don’t think one would understand the very importance of this book. It portrays the life and lifestyle of a lost civilization which was erased by the imperialism of the British. Bahadur Shah, the last of the Mughals, continues to be told as ‘Their King, even after his death, by the then people of Delhi. The poems of Mir, Ghalib, Zauq fills the air and it continues to be the breath of every living soul of the city.

The best part of the book is when Mir Nihal reluctantly attends the coronation of King George from Jamia Masjid amidst a jubilant crowd welcoming the King, the very place where he saw his own men butchered to death during the 1857 Mutiny to protect the city. The city has transmogrified, the crowd has forgotten, but Mir Nihal’s pride and identity is much evoked by the sadness which engulfs him and his voicelessness to say the truth to the now forgotten people.

The tone of the author is nostalgic and his unbridled admiration for the glory of the lost culture has the whimsical nature of a lover which longs for his lost love. And, this almost came as a surprise when one learns that it was Ahmed Ali’s anger which drove him to write this work. And, for all his lament for losing a culture to the imperialists from the west, it is quite ironical that he chose to bring attention to the destruction of his city by writing this work in the language of the enemies, English. It worked. This book was praised high during its period, and that it is another an important reason why it came back in circulation.

But, the old Delhi is not all poetry, romance, and art. There are other glaring truths – unintended ones by the author – which comes to the knowledge of the 21st reader. Men, even those married ones, invariably have a mistress, women are pushed to household work and strict purdah, and a young girl as much as fourteen years old gets married to a sixty-year-old man only to die in the next six months. There are palanquin bearers whose story and life we never know, and the tales prostitutes who serve their masters are never told. There is also a subtle communal tone lacing the narration. Mughals and Mussalmans are portrayed as more patriotic of Hindustan than Hindus, and the author does make sly comments muffled under the grandeur voice and style. Sister of Ashwaq could remarry under the code of Quran but abstains from doing it because the Hindu morals and social code prevent it. Every Muslim warns of how the coronation is a bad omen, yet Siddiq the ‘fat bania*’ stands with the farangis, the British. Perhaps, the 21st century me is overlooking the nuances. Even the Arthasastra calls ‘Banias*’ to be men whom one has to see with a suspect, and the Hindu-Muslim divide was more pronounced then, under a homogenized culture. Yet, I believe, the liberal tradition and mindset of today India was brought and assimilated into our culture, thanks only to the same British Imperialists. The nostalgia for a lost tradition and the anger at the imperialistic destruction is justifiable although, I am afraid, if not warned, there is a danger that one would linger on to the glories of the past and forget the gifts of the present.

Yet. I wish a Ahmed Ali had lived in every city in India to raise a voice and record how the imperialism, war, oppression changed the city and the country; and to make us remember what we once possessed and what we lost. As the story went, Mir Nihal was crippled and pushed to see the gradual demise and deterioration of his own sons and daughters while he continued to be alive remaining hapless and useless. Perhaps, that is how Delhi (or India) was crippled by the British – slow and steady – to remain yet without complete destruction when all her sons and daughters died until saved by a man in loin clothes and spectacles. But, that is another story. Another, history.

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*Banias – The merchant caste who are allowed and largely responsible for trading and other related activities in pre-Independence India.

Note: To have a better understanding of the background of this work, try to read the ‘Introduction’ in William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal.

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