Monday, 23 April 2007

Twilight in Delhi : Decay of a city and a family

It was in the 1930s that the literary phenomenon called ‘Indian fiction in English’ gained visibility with the entry of writers like Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali’s novel, Twilight in Delhi, published in 1940, belongs to this early phase of Indo-English writing.

Ahmed Ali (1912-1994) was born in Delhi, and educated at Aligarh and Lucknow. Having taught as a lecturer in English at Lucknow and Calcutta Universities, he had later migrated to Pakistan after Partition. He was a member of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association and had contributed an article, “A Progressive View of Art” to its first official publication, Towards Progressive Literature. According to him, art has its roots in and derives its material from life. Art leads to “mental and emotional activity, stimulation of a progressive type, which leads us along the lines of the highest consciousness” (Raizada, 3). For him, the word “progressive” means trying to enrich our social life and implies the banishment of mysticism.

Ahmed Ali’s first publication is Angare or Sparks which is a collection of experimental stories in Urdu, and done in collaboration with other young Urdu writers. However, this book was publicly burnt in many places because of its bold treatment of the sordid, dark side of Indian life.

Many of the preoccupations of Ahmed Ali in Twilight in Delhi find place in a limited scope in his short story “Our Lane” which was first written in Urdu and then translated by the author himself to English. Though his first novel Twilight in Delhi is written in the realistic technique, Ahmed Ali turns to an exploration of the human psyche in his second novel Ocean of Night (1964) while his third novel Rats and Diplomats (1985) tries to ridicule life in diplomatic circles abroad. Besides novels and short stories, he has also brought out translations, poetry and criticism.

As for this novel’s career, it was at first rejected by a firm of American Publishers, for whom the author had written it, on the ground that it was far removed from American life. However, the Hogarth Press, on the intervention of E.M. Forster, later published it. It was hailed by critics on first coming out but remained out of print till 1967 due to political disturbances in India and abroad. However, in Pakistan, as the author points out in the introduction to the Oxford University Press Publication of 1991, on rare occasions when he has been interviewed over the television, all references to Twilight in Delhi have been edited as it was based in Delhi, the ‘forbidden’ city across the border.

Twilight in Delhi gives a broad and realistic view of Muslim life set in Delhi. With the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the old feudal order in the Muslim society had disintegrated and the Muslim bourgeois and aristocrats were no longer prominent after 1858. This novel gives a glimpse of the discontent that was brewing among the Muslims during the second decade of the twentieth century. As the title of the novel suggests, the city of Delhi is now no longer in its pinnacle of glory and Mir Nihal’s premonitions infuse the reader with the ominous sense that very soon, Delhi would plunge into the darkness of night. In fact, when the novel ends, it is both literally and figuratively dark.

The novel devotes many pages to what colonialism has done to the city of Delhi, giving both a panoramic and close view. The author turns the city into a living entity that has been “mourned and sung, raped and conquered, yet whole and alive, lies indifferent in the arms of sleep” (Ali, 3). Lamenting the death of its culture, he cries out, “yet gone is its glory and departed are those from whom it got the breath of life” (Ali, 4). Giving a picture of total abjection, the author says, “Like a beaten dog it has curled its tail between its legs, and lies lifeless in the night as an acknowledgement of defeat” (Ali, 5). There is a poetic account of the anger that is felt by the residents of Delhi at not only what the British are doing to its landscape, but at the imminent demise of a culture and a way of life with the construction of a new Delhi outside the old city. “She would become the city of the dead, inhabited by people who would have no love for her nor any associations with her history and ancient splendour” (Ali, 144). In the summer of 1918, with the demolishment of the protective city walls, Delhi reels not only under a terrible heat but loses thousands of its denizens to the First World War and the influenza epidemic.

The novel’s lyricism in its depiction of the decay in the city of Delhi and its inhabitants is enhanced by the sprinkling of poetic passages from different Urdu poets. All of them are infused with thematic significance, reflecting the mood of the characters and heightening the intensity of the dominant emotion. The epigraphs beginning each of the parts of the novel mirror the condition of the city itself. At one point the novelist says, “This world is a house of many mirrors. Wherever you turn you see your own images in the glass. They multiply and become innumerable until you begin to feel frightened of your own self” (Ali, 85). Perhaps in these words, we can find justification for his use of a child’s cry, a beggar’s song or a qawwali to bring to light the emotional state of a particular character.

But it is Bahadur Shah who is a continuing and haunting presence in the novel. The last of the Mughal kings, who had to suffer the most humiliating treatment at the hands of the British forces, Bahadur Shah’s pain-filled poetry resonates throughout. Sometimes, it is the beggar called Bahadur Shah who sings his poems, “I’m the light of no one’s eye, / The rest of no one’s heart am I” (Ali, 97). Or, sometimes, it is the king’s granddaughter, Gul Bano, now reduced to a beggar, singing his verses in a plaintive voice, “Delhi was once a paradise, / Such peace had abided here” (Ali, 102). It is as if the downfall of the poet king is a pointer to the macrocosm of the city’s downfall, its present state of ruin and degeneration.

The novel vividly delineates the clash of two cultures; between tradition and modernity. The events are set in a time when Western modes of living and thinking were entering Indian homes and minds. Mir Nihal, the embodiment of the old customs, is pained at this “hybrid culture” which is a “hodgepodge of Indian and Western ways which he failed to understand” (Ali, 175). He is grieved that the “wealth of poetry” is gone and there is “in place of emotion and sentiments a vulgar sentimentality” (Ali, 176). The author’s own nostalgia for the old phase of life is seen in the representation of the character of Mir Nihal. The reader is given a glimpse of his existential dilemmas, his musings on the impermanence of the world, or the callous indifference of death, or how life goes on despite death and one’s personal grief. But Mir Nihal himself is not free from human frailties – there is a hint that he has fathered a child by the maid Dilchain, an incident, which affects the mental stability of his wife. The narrator mocks at Mir Nihal’s insistence on family honour by showing him, immediately after his outburst, to be thrown some fuel dust carried by a donkey and Ghaffoor’s parrot breaking into a peal of laughter (49).

The novel shows how the older generation feels outraged at some of the younger people’s acceptance of Western habits. Mir Nihal does not like his son Asghar’s adoption of English clothes and manners. Bilqeece becomes the target of insulting remarks when she wears English shoes. Small incidents like these reflect the resentment that is brewing in the hearts of many people at the colonial intrusion into their everyday lives.

Asghar is the new modern man who not only chooses his own bride but also later opts for a nuclear family. But his portrait is not without criticism. The novelist explores his inner feelings, the pain he suffers on account of his love for Bilqeece. His poetic sensibility is highlighted in the phantasmagoric dreams he sees and the poems of love and longing that he recites in order to express his dilemma. But somehow, the reader fails to sympathize with him. The surge of self-pity in his utterances is disconcerting. Showing psychological insight, the author remarks that Asghar was “not so much in love with her as with his own self, his own dreams and illusions, which she had created in his mind…” (Ali, 133). The taint of his modernity is reflected in his being trapped in a patriarchal mind-set. This is seen in his shabby treatment of Bilqeece after his passion for her cools and later, his efforts to marry Zohra by claiming that his child needs a mother when he himself has fallen in love with her.

Thus, the novel delineates both a traditional and a modern way of life in the persons of Mir Nihal and Asghar respectively, but it also points out the flaws in both ideologies.

Twilight in Delhi is not an explicitly political novel – it deals with the impact of colonialism on people’s social lives. It does not have any of the main characters engaged in any direct action against the British forces. Mirza, the milk seller’s son is shot-dead when he goes to non-co-operate but Mirza is a peripheral character and his son does not even appear in the novel. British rule does not have a specifically harmful impact on the particular Muslim family that the novel deals with. But it gives a glimpse of the emotional anguish that some of the characters experience because of colonial rule. For instance, Mir Nihal’s state of mind on the day of the coronation of King George V – “There were those men of 1857, and here were the men of 1911, chicken hearted and happy in their disgrace. This thought filled him with pain, and he sat there, as it were, on the rack, weeping dry tears of blood, seeing the death of his world and of his birthplace” (Ali, 107).

Mir Nihal’s loss of his youth and health mirrors the predicament of Delhi itself. Bedridden with paralysis, he lives in a “constant twilight of velleities and regrets, watching the young die one by one and gain their liberty from the sorrows of the world” (Ali, 175). The devouring of his pigeons by the cat not only puts an end to his favourite hobby but can also be taken as a symbol for the intrusion of colonial forces into the heart of India. But though Mir Nihal is sensitive to all this, his daily life is unaffected either by British rules and policies or by nationalist struggles for freedom.

Asghar is also totally indifferent to the widespread freedom movements of 1919. “He was unconcerned whether the country lived or died” (Ali, 181). It is ironic that he considers love to be the only permanent thing, when he falls in love with his wife’s sister just after six months of her death. On the other hand, the novel shows people like Saeed Hasan, Mir Nihal’s son-in-law who is affected by “foreign modernity” (185) but unperturbed by foreign rule. “Life went on peacefully for aught he cared, and that was all he was interested in, like most Indian fatalists” (Ali, 185). Being comparatively well off, the male members of the family can afford to hold long discussions regarding the harmful effects of foreign rule without being directly affected by it. When the influenza epidemic struck and people had difficulty in affording a winding-sheet for a dead relative, Asghar could build a proper grave for his wife.

Coming to the question of the “Indianness’ of the novel, we find that Ahmed Ali tries to infuse his work with indigenous concerns by deploying a particular theme, style, imagery and setting.

His style is realism. Harish Raizada quotes Ahmed Ali, “Our literature so far has been of an individualist type, sentimental, unrealistic, irrational, mystical. Conditions demand an uncompromising realism, looking the problems in the face, a literature brutal even in its ruggedness without embellishments and unnecessary insistence on form and technique” (6). In accordance with these views, everything is treated to realistic detail. Describing the by lanes of Delhi, the author comments “Dogs go about sniffing the gutters in search of offal; and cats slink out of narrow by lanes, from under the planks jutting out of shops, and lick the earthen cups out of which men had drunk milk and thrown away” (Ali, 3). Though the novel gives a sweeping view of members of different social strata and accordingly has a huge number of characters with markedly different personalities, it gives us a glimpse of the everyday doings and concerns of the Nihals. Then there is the realistic depiction of the elaborate rituals involved in marriage ceremonies, funerals and religious festivals of Id, kite flying, pigeon flying and the pervasive belief in superstition.

We are given a close view of the Indian joint family where women are shut up in their zenanas while men are free to keep mistresses. Referring to the realm of the zenana, the author says eloquently, “The world lived and died, things happened, events took place, but all this did not disturb the equanimity of the zenana, which had its world too where the pale and fragile beauties of the hothouse lived secluded from all outside harm, the storms that blow in the world of men” (Ali, 29). Ahmed Ali gives an apt picture of the Indian woman who is subjected to so many restrictions that “the idea of love does not take root in the heart’ (Ali, 134). Bilqeece is such an Indian woman who is ‘unromantic’ (134) but a ‘perfect housewife’ (133) and the novelist gives a poignant picture of her later passive suffering. He also gives a psychological insight into Mehro’s temper whenever her fiancé’s name is mentioned. This novel does not portray any female resistance to the patriarchal biases prevalent in the home and the family.

The specifically hot Indian summer with which each part of the novel begins, the beauty and sadness of the Indian spring and rainy season, the date palm and the henna tree which stand in the courtyard as witnesses to the family’s joys and sorrows, the song of the domnis and the riot of colours in the marriage ceremonies, the smell of kababs near Jama Masjid – all these make the novel quintessentially Indian.

But the question arises as to whether the novel tries to impute homogeneity to Indian tradition and culture. Mourning the passing away of a great art and culture, the author makes Mir Nihal consider only posts like Mir, Ghalib and Insha as the “great poets of Hindustan” (Ali, 176). The Mughal Empire and monuments built by Mughals are regarded as the mark of glory and splendour of the city of Delhi, though there is a minor reference to the Kauravas and the Pandavas. By doing this, the author imparts singularity to India’s rich and plural cultural heritage. Vinayak Krishna Gokak in his book The Concept of Indian Literature remarks that an integral cultural awareness is an indispensable feature of Indianness. I would not say that the novel here falls short of Indianness but it does infuse homogeneity by glorifying only a portion of the entire Indian heritage and calling it the whole.

Commenting on the themes handled by the older generation of Indo-English novelists, Meenakshi Mukherjee in her essay “The Anxiety of Indianness” says that they were predictably pan-Indian, defining Indian concerns as against local or regional issues. Mukherjee does not refer to Ahmed Ali, but his novel, though marked by spatial specifity and attempt an exploration of Muslim society, also deals with similar time-worn clichés of east-west confrontation, the clash between tradition and modernity, the disintegration of the Indian joint family, etc. As Mukherjee says, this can be seen as an attempt to construct a national identity, through “erasure of differences within the border and accentuating the difference with what lies outside” (174).

K. Satchidanandan in Indian Literature: Positions and Propositions has pointed out that Indian writers are first and foremost Indian, no matter what language they write in, because of their works’ rootedness in their social, historical and cultural contexts. But this basic unity has in no way eroded the fascinating diversity of our literatures. Twilight in Delhi is very different from the other literary texts already done in this course both in theme and form – a pointer to the heterogeneity of Indian literature. But an Indian setting and theme marks it, reflecting Vinayak Krishna Gokak’s comment that Indian literature is a thread of continuity against a background of continuous change. In conclusion, it can be pointed out that Indian novels in English and works in Indian languages are, as Mukherjee says, “disparate literary products of a complex plural culture” (168) and they should not be congealed into rigid and opposed positions.
From our situatedness in a time when upper and middle class Indian society has internalized so many Western habits and ways of life, Twilight in Delhi can be seen as looking into a time when the situation was very different, and as trying to articulate a people’s helplessness in the face of what colonialism was doing to their culture and to their beloved and once glorious city.

Works Cited

Ali, Ahmed. Twilight in Delhi. 1940. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gokak, Vinayak Krishna. The Concept of Indian Literature. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1979.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Raizada, Harish. “Ahmed Ali”. Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Ed.
Madhusudan Prasad. New Delhi, Bangalore, Jullundur: Sterling Publishers’ Private Ltd., 1982. 1-22.

Satchidanandan, K. Indian Literature: Positions and Propositions. Delhi : Pencraft International, 1999.

After discussion in the Seminar

The word “progressive’, for the Progressive Writers’ Association of which Ahmed Ali was a member, meant Marxist. However, Twilight in Delhi deals with a feudal kind of orthodoxy. The novel has a fairly common plot line of a protagonist who is already old but is getting older and becomes bedridden with paralysis. The author delves into his emotions, his deep anguish at what is happening to ‘Muslim’ Delhi. It is all the more painful for him because the encroachment of Western habits and ways of life on Indian living is taking place within his own home. Twilight in Delhi is not a nostalgic novel but an elegiac one, mourning the loss of a culture which is, however, exclusively Muslim – eulogising poets like Mir, Ghalib and Insha as the “great poets of Hindustan” (Ali, 176) and the Mughal Era as a period of glory and prosperity.

The novel has a strong political undercurrent, which ultimately becomes the focal point. We have at the centre of the novel a historical and political event of tremendous significance – the coronation ceremony of King George V in 1911. It was the first visit of an English king to India after the formation of the Empire and the author gives an elaborate picture of Mir Nihal’s state of mind at the native rajahs and nawabs’ “slavishness and their treacherous acceptance of the foreign yoke” (105). Recalling the revolt of 1857, Mir Nihal remembers how the Mussalmans then were so much different from the Musslamans of 1911, how they had fought so bravely against Sir Thomas Metcalfe and his army. Mir Nihal’s personal reflections point to the general belief among the Muslims that the revolt of 1857 was a Muslim revolt. This belief arose partly because Bahadur Shah was still the nominal head then, when in reality; the Emperor had very unwillingly joined the rebels. Thus, when Mir Nihal sees the Muslims now kowtowing to the English rulers, that there is such a large procession now to see not a Mughal Emperor but an English king, he feels absolute humiliation.

The demolishment of the city walls becomes laden with symbolic significance – it becomes the violation of the very sanctity and integrity of the city. The author points out that seven Delhis have fallen – all built by Mughal rulers, and Mir Nihal is pained that an eighth Delhi is under construction, which will be the capital of not the Mughals but the British.

The novel’s sectarianism is further seen in the fact that all the characters are Muslim, when actually in Chandni Chowk in 1911; the percentage of Hindus was more than that of Muslims. Only one character is a Hindu – Dr. Mitra who is made the butt of ridicule. The narrator mocks at his Bengali accent, and his habit of prescribing expensive medicines and charging fees for every visit together with the tonga fare. It is worth noting that he also fails to save Habibuddin though he has earlier cured Bilqeece.

Thus, Twilight in Delhi is not just about domestic events but is marked by a strong political content. Though it presents a selective view of history; it makes a rich resource for social and historical information about the city of Delhi in the second decade of the twentieth century.

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