Delhi Extra-Large

The India depicted in this more-epic-than-necessary first novel is both incredible and unbearable
By Sujit Saraf
Sigh. If only it was not so epic. Granted, modern India has many riveting tales to tell. Granted, every fledgling writer desires to leave no rubble or rock unturned, but to tell it all, aspires to burst upon the international literary scene with the biggest bang. And not much comes bigger than a 750-page muscle-builder, aka Sujit Saraf's messianic would-be magnum opus.

There is an essential, head-scratching paradox about this mawkishly-titled first novel that I have been unable to resolve. The paradox is this: It is uniformly well-written, yet not a page-turner. Disappointed expectation dogged my reading of the opus and crystallised into disillusion by the time I came to the glossary. (A glossary! What an absolutely vile idea, in a post-colonial novel of the 21st century. It consolidates one's belief that sunny California, where the novelist lives and works as a research scientist, is indeed another planet.) More seriously, it reinforces one's discomfiting sense that the novel, a more-epic-than-necessary hardly-veiled historical treatise on socio-political goings-on in India in the recent past, was written for THEM, not the US. For the second generation Indian-Americans, perhaps, and for the rest of them who live on the other planet and know not much about India other than vague notions of peacocks and thrones.


WIDE ANGLE: Sujit Saraf parades his textbook knowledge

But The Peacock Throne, I must hasten to say sincerely, is an impressive testament to how much the author knows about contemporary India, and how much he is cognizant of the pulse of the aam aadmi, the common people, of its capital city. One is continuously, pleasantly surprised at how the novel captures, and conveys, little but telling ways in which regular people-the shopkeeper, the policeman, the prostitute, the NGO worker, the gold-chained businessman, the young and intrepid neighbourhood hoodlum-slither and stride about their petty lives in India's monstrously-urban, devastatingly-corrupt Delhi. In fact, it is this towering strength of Saraf's epic enterprise that turns into its unfortunate drawback: for there is just too much of it, the same shopkeepers and prostitutes, the same oily young men and their NGO didis, the same streets of Chandni Chowk in Purani Dilli that come pulsingly alive upon first encounter with the tinkling of rickshaw bells and the stench of urine, but pale into indistinction upon repeated-and repeated-resurrections.

Saraf's sombre mission-to chronicle a modern India devoid of lightness or levity-is never compromised for a moment. The novel, in fact, apes history textbooks, given its sober divisioning into five parts, each under an ominous year of entry: 1984, 1990, 1992, 1996 and 1998. The anti-Sikh riots, following Indira Gandhi's assassination, the Mandal Commission protests and the Babri Masjid demolition are the obvious historical flash points that Saraf works around, and woven through them is the charmed, if not charming, tale of the consolidation of the Hindu Right by the end of the 20th century. But no political party, right, left or centre-and indeed, no "political" person, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, MP, MLA, chaivala or NGO chief in pristine white cotton sari-is spared an unflinching, intractable critique of character and conduct. Modern India, contained microcosmically in its capital's filthy and overcrowded Chandni Chowk, is on Saraf's canvas darkly and depressingly charcoal-grey, swamped by its own dingy inhumanity, unrelieved even in its briefest encounters of heart and hand and soul. Its intimacies are confined to lurid heterosexual escapades in red-lit kothas and homosexual transactions in stinking cupboards. Friendships or loves have nary a chance to bloom in this putrid, proliferating hell. Gopal Pandey/Das, who is Everyman at the focal point of Saraf's decrepit universe, is merely a minor character, more acted upon than acting. Kartar Singh, Sohan Lal, Suleman Mian, Ibrahim, Gauhar Muhammad, Harilal Gupta, Naresh Aggarwal, Chitra Ghosh, Gita Didi alias Gulmohur-all belong to a predictable multi-cast which embodies incredible, unbearable India.

Read it for its searingly accurate portrait of a politically degenerated India: for its intricate tales of betrayal and loneliness; for its sodden stories of petty ambition and puerile stakes; for its acute delineations of the malevolence of modern Indian history. It will certainly tell you why escaping to sun-flicked,(sea-kissed California seems like such a bright idea.