The Walls of Delhi: Three Stories
The Walls of Delhi: Three Stories by Uday Prakash, Translated by Jason Grunebaum
Seven Stories Press, 240 pages, 2014, $23.95, 978-1609805289 (Paperback due out in July)
Hindi-language literature, like much of India, is almost unknown in the West. Few writers who write in the native tongues of India (Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, etc.) are translated to English. However, one of these writers in today’s India who is available in English is Uday Prakash, whose latest work of fiction, The Walls of Delhi, a collection of three stories, comes out in July in paperback by Seven Stories Press in a translation by Jason Grunebaum.
To enter into the world of Prakash’s India is to be stripped away of any of the illusions and fantasies that Westerners might have of India. Indeed, if anyone has any inkling of “Indian literature” it is usually restricted to the classical texts of the Upanishads or the Bhagavad-Gita, or Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. But to judge a country like India by this corpus of work is to judge modern-day Israel by reading the Book of Exodus, say, or Saudi Arabia by reading solely the Qur’an.
Prakash’s India actually provides the shock of recognition of another poor country, addled by severe problems of a corrupt bureaucracy, indifferent politicians, and overwhelming poverty; definitely a different view of an India that is supposed to be a “sacred land”.
The three stories follow three men. The first story, The Walls of Delhi, deals with the secret of a wall in Delhi and how this affects a desperate Ramnivas, just another of the many people who have come to Delhi from the hinterlands of India.
Ramnivas is poor and under-employed, burdened by a family to feed, including a resentful wife and sick child. He dreams of a simple, pleasure-filled life with his hesitant lover, a teenaged servant from the same district of Delhi as he. He struggles among the other denizens of the lower quarters. Prakash mentions the squalor of their lives: “...the round building with a dome right beside the industrial drainage: a crumbling, dark-red brick ruin with old worn stones. It’s hard to believe that humans could be living there.”
Prakash’s narrative is fast, direct, and in Grunebaum’s translation, slangy and up-tempo. He describes the urbanized poor in Delhi, where transient people show up from far-away rural hamlets and set up what amounts to temporary lives in the city. Time and again, Prakash’s narrator tells us that these people disappear, and when they do, no one will ask about them, nor remember them.
This first novella reminded me of a similar story from Mexico, in a short novel by Luis Spota named Lo de antes, the story of a mediocre pick-pocket who neglects his wife and children, whiles his time away avoiding work at his crappy job, tries to seduce a young waitress, and dreams of a better life.
Like Ramnivas, he really has no glorious future other than subsistence poverty and an ignominious life. Eventually, he is forced by a corrupt Mexico City cop to return to “lo de antes”, to his life as a pick-pocket. Spota, like Prakash, renders a sympathetic portrait of the down-trodden in evocative language that borders on a kind of street poetry. Not surprisingly, Spota’s work is neglected in the English-speaking world.
The second story, “Mohandas”, plays a bit with the reader, naming the three of the main characters with names similar to the names of famous historical Indian persons. Though Prakash chastises the reader for thinking he has figured out the literary trick, and denies playing, there is still a sense of the story relating the tragedy of India as a negative experience from that of, say, the world-famous Mohandas, aka Gandhi.
The story is a tour de force of absurdity, abuse, and suffering as told by a narrator who sympathizes with the character of Mohandas. The main plot centers around Mohandas having had his identity stolen.
While one is tempted to call the situation Kafkaesque, the problem with the comparison is that in the work of Kafka, the nightmarish events that engulf a normal man are seemingly random, inexplicable, while in Prakash, the situations suffered by Mohandas may be absurd but they are not at random; they are perpetrated by callous, petty men who intend to hurt the victim they have plucked from the impoverished, suffering human flotsam-and-jetsam in quotidian India.
This story begins with an arresting description of the color of fear on a man’s face, and describes it thus: “The man turns the corner into a deserted alley to find himself caught in the middle of a riot — and unfortunately for him, he’s the wrong religion or race as far as the gang or mob that’s surrounding him is concerned.
“The look in the doomed man’s eyes, on his face, the posture of his body right at that moment, just a second or two before his murder — that’s the color I’m talking about, and that was the color of Mohanda’s fact that day.”
The story is unrelenting, almost unsparing in the logic of the horror suffered by Mohandas, and despite some humor, and the ending which actually left me chuckling, it does not diminish Prakash’s condemnation of the society that forces Mohandas and many of his caste and class to live the brutish, poor lives they do.
The last story, “Mangosil”, solidifies the standing of Prakash as the modern master of a new realism that reminds me of other great, popular, much beloved authors like the aforementioned Spota, Jorge Amado of Brazil or even Dicken’s. These writers criticized the appalling social conditions and governmental corruption which maintained millions in a life enthralled by poverty, caste/class, and desperation, a life that many of their readers shared and understood viscerally.
“Mangosil” details the sad story of Chandrakant and Shobha, and the birth, after eight of their children dying, of one child who finally lives: Suryakant. But Suryakant begins to suffer from a disease that makes his head grow and grow, while also giving him knowledge beyond his childish years. And as the Book of Ecclesiastes states: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”.
Prakash’s work, masterfully crafted into English by Grunebaum, throws the reader unfamiliar with contemporary India right into the maelstrom of the characters’ lives. There are no explanatory notes to tell us what is chole or paan or any other number of Indian references. We don’t need to know what chole or paan is. I would not know these words either, were I to walk down the streets of Delhi, overwhelmed by sights and sounds completely alien to me. This device gives one a dizzying sense of a regular life lived by people in a land that we have exoticized or fetishized through centuries of colonialism.
Prakash’s India is filled with hustling cart-vendors, family women who turn tricks, mechanics, servants, criminals, and murderers. As Prakash — clearly sympathetic — tells us, they are not slumdogs, but rather the average citizen, put upon by generations of poverty, a rapidly changing culture where some suffer an acute, constant starvation, while others eat so much that they must go to a gym in order to lose weight!
Prakash does not focus on the jet-set of India. Interspersed with his stinging rebukes of the abuses of the powerful in India are hard-won gems of wisdom. And in the harsh realism of his tales, he also manages to diffuse the harshness of his observations with a poetic sensibility that is quite moving, as when he has a judge place his hand on the attorney that takes on Mohanda’s case: “He approached Harshvarddhan and placed his hand on his shoulder; Harshvarddhan felt as if the hand had no weight at all. It was a hand of made of paper, flowers, a dream, or a language.”
And that is, indeed, what this book of Prakash’s is.
Manuel Morales y Méndez was born in Mexico and grew up in Chicago. A bookseller at local bookstores, he has over 20 years experience in the trade.