Mar 242012

Khushwant Singh is a renowned journalist, historian, novelist, and translator; he is a savvy writer who weaves the historic past and a fictional present together with wit, intelligence, and authority. That is, Singh is renowned in India and to literary minded people the world over who are not doomed to be as parochial as I am. I should know because I almost tossed his novel Delhi aside after growing bored with it. This would have been a great error in judgment. Whether you chalk it up to a lack of patience, my ignorance, or the novel’s flaws, I was  unimpressed with the first forty-nine pages of the book; happily, I made it to page fifty because, after that, I became unwilling to put it down for food or nature.

My own discovery of the author’s work was a lucky accident. I ran across a Wikipedia entry on Khushwant Singh while looking up information about Sikhs. I can’t remember why the hell I was looking any of this up, but I recall doing a search for Sikh intellectuals and finding the article. The entry sparked enough interest that I took a two-dollar chance on a worn copy of Delhi. A few weeks later, I found myself plodding through the beginning of a raunchy – seemingly gratuitous – novel that had a few literary gestures thrown in as asides. Written in first person, the literary character Khushwant Singh seems to have constructed inhabits Delhi, with the protagonist clearly a stand-in for the author à la Bukowski. The novel opens with Singh’s arrival from afar, and then follows him as he putters about Delhi: he describes the city, his haunts, and his position as man of letters with powerful government connections; a lonely lecher in the late summer of his life, the protagonist is primarily concerned with wringing out the last of his hedonistic juices one bitter drop at a time.

Looking back, the reason I was bored by the early chapters was the apparent story is of a jaded playboy’s declining years. There were fart jokes, and some cultural color was described while I fought to stay awake. In the second chapter, Singh has an awkward and unpleasant sexual encounter with a middle-aged English aristocrat, and then goes on to describe his relationship with a hermaphrodite prostitute named Bhagmati. But – the stakes seem low. Yes, the prose is well written, and the setting is interesting; however, I was uncertain the story was going anywhere significant. Of course, had I known more about this author, I would have been reassured that I was in good hands: all of this was leading up to something remarkable.

In the third chapter, the novel jumps backward to significant periods in Delhi’s History. Here Singh takes full command of the narrative as he evokes the rich, bawdy, and brutal history of the city.  And while the contemporary sections weren’t nearly as interesting as the historical bits, they do become more resonant as history characterizes the modern setting and contextualizes Singh’s position within Indian culture. Of course, I have to consider the fact that I was reading as someone who is effectively ignorant of this historical context the author gestures to from page one. Hunter S. Thompson quips about the futility of showing card tricks to a dog: my lack of knowledge regarding Indian history when beginning to read Delhi is a good example of this metaphor.

But getting back to the topic of historical novels, this jumping back and forth between past and present is a fairly conventional structure for books of this kind. One cannot help but notice many novels utilize this structure which utilize history as a kind of ornate crutch to propel an otherwise anemic narrative forward; in other cases, it works the other way around, where historical yarns seems tacked on with the more contemporary sections holding reader interest. While I maintain the trips to Delhi’s distant past were more interesting than the novel’s present, ultimately, Singh succeeds in articulating a complex and unified novel that doesn’t spare any religious, political, or cultural group from scrutiny including his own.

In a country with such a long and complicated history, the author does a remarkable job of utilizing significant events to skewer Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike with ruthless, measured thrusts. To this ill-informed American reader, the novel seems as fair to all sides as it is rich with specifics of just how awful these groups have treated one another when they were in power; however, the reality is that I know very little about India’s history or culture. I have no illusions that I could ever surpass the most facile understanding of the repeated conquests and colonialism that Singh evokes in this remarkably slim novel with such skill. But as someone who’s invested in using historical contexts to complicate and enrich fiction, I learned a lot from this book. I look forward to returning to it for future lessons. If you know nothing of Khushwant Singh, I recommend looking at a couple of articles to whet your appetite for his writing; he’s quite a character and unapologetically so.

Finding the fiction of Khushwant Singh was indeed a happy accident, and I look forward to reading more of his work.