Book Review: Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali

Traversing hurdles created by publishers in Britain, this book’s publication was made possible by none other than Virginia Woolf. First published in 1940, the book gained immediate prominence and acclaim in India, only to be lost and re-found in post-partition India.

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A GLIMPSE OF OLD DELHI

Set in pre-partition India, the novel conjures a magical world of Old Delhi, “delves into history, bringing the past alive; it is a moving portrayal of the slow and steady decay of an entire culture and way of life“.

Enthused with a sense of nostalgia for passing of the Old world along with its culture, traditions, myths etc., the tone and theme of the novel is established in the opening verse by Bahadur Shah:

Delhi was once a paradise,

Such peace had abided here;

But they have ravished its name and pride,

Remain now only ruins and care.

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RAVAGED KASHMERE GATE AFTER THE WAR OF 1857

Set in the political milieu of 1930s, the novel takes us back to the 1857 “mutiny” as phrased by the Imperial masters and the fall of disintegrating Mughal Empire with the capture and death of Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

FotorCreated

THE REVOLT OF 1857

Witnesses of the 1857 revolution, Mir Nahal and Begum Nahal remember an alternate narrative to the revolution as opposed to what is taught by British. A keeper of history and troubled by his own memory, Mir Nahal ruminates the banishment of Muslims from their own city in the aftermath of the Revolution and juxtaposes the men of 1857 to 1911 who (1911 men) are all too happy with subjection and revels in the glory of the British Empire. Murmuring to himself “…Time will show them a new and quite a different sight, a peep into the mysteries of life, and give them a full glimpse of the sorrows of subjection”, he comes across the progeny of Shah Jahan who in today’s world “have no place on the earth” and has become a laughing stock due to his “poverty and plight…”.

Chronicler of history, Mir Nahal brings us an entire different Delhi which is no longer available to us. The author rekindles the old Delhi,

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KABOOTARBAZI – PIGEON RACE AT JAMA MASJID AREA OF OLD DELHI

where pigeon flying or Kabutarbaazi is a serious art,

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A GROUP OF NAUTCH GIRLS

the prostitutes are of two types, the cultured ones and whores,

zenan

LADIES OF ZENANA

where in zenana “the time passed mostly between eating, talking, cooking, sewing, or doing nothing”. Graphic description of marriages, deaths, child births and religious festivals, brings alive the old traditions and rituals.

COLLAGE

LIFE IN OLD DELHI

A world where djinns, fakirs, hakims, alchemists are common household names and friends sit for hours “comparing notes and relating anecdotes about faqirs and herbs, remnants of an alchemic life”. However, with progression of novel, we see the passing of this world and its replacement by unfamiliar world, symbolized by the construction of the eighth city by the British.

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BUILDING OF THE EIGHTH CITY BY BRITISH (CONSTRUCTION OF THE THEN VICEROY HOUSE)

The author prophesies the annihilation of old culture and its replacement by new customs, new ways and most of all the language, “on which Delhi had prided herself, would become adulterated and impure, and would lose its beauty and uniqueness of idiom.

Lamenting the passing away of his beloved Delhi, the author cries “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 splendor.” With death or fading off of people associated with the old city, the city fades into a blanket of darkness and gloom.

The novel is an interesting read for anyone fascinated by old Delhi (Shahjahanabad) and its culture and traditions which are lost today.

Title: Twilight in Delhi

Author: Ahmed Ali

Publisher: Rupa Publications

Pages: 275

Genre: Indian Fiction

Rating: 5/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

Ahmed Ali (1910 in New Delhi – 14 January 1994 in Karachi) (Urdu: احمد علی ‎) was an Indian (later Pakistani) novelist, poet, critic, translator, diplomat and scholar. His writings include Twilight in Delhi (1940), his first novel.

Born in Delhi, India, Ahmed Ali was educated at Aligarh and Lucknow universities, graduating with first-class and first in the order of merit in both B.A. (Honours), 1930 and M.A. English, 1931. He taught at leading Indian universities including Lucknow and Allahabad from 1932–46 and joined the Bengal Senior Educational Service as professor and head of the English Department at Presidency College, Calcutta (1944–47). Ali was the BBC’s Representative and Director in India during 1942–45. During the Partition of India, he was the British Council Visiting Professor to the University of China in Nanking as appointed by the British government of India. When he tried to return to India in 1948, K. P. S. Menon (then India’s ambassador to China) did not let him and he was forced to move to Pakistan.

In 1948, he moved to Karachi. Later, he was appointed Director of Foreign Publicity, Government of Pakistan. At the behest of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, he joined the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1950. The first file he received was marked ‘China’ and when he opened it; it was blank. He went to China as Pakistan’s first envoy and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1951. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

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  1. Pingback: Book Reviews Archive | My Writing Den

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