Weeded Out: Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which was held from January 24 to 28, has become one of the world’s largest literary festivals. Unfortunately, it has also become a magnet for religious fundamentalists and right wingers.  Muslim groups prevented Salman Rushdie’s participation last year. This year the BJP and the RSS demanded that Pakistani writers should stay away from the festival. The government and the organizers stood firm – unlike in 2012 when both surrendered to the fundamentalists’ threats. So no Pakistani writer was prevented from attending the festival.  In a Guardian article, Kamila Shamsie and Salil Tripathi explained why the presence of writers from across the border was necessary:

Over the years, the Jaipur festival has earned the reputation of being an important destination on the global literary map. Any steps politicians and politically inclined groups take to stamp their authority on it diminishes the world. India and Pakistan may have legitimate grievances with each another, but a literary festival, like a stage or a hockey field, is no place to settle them – on the contrary, those spaces exist so that both countries can expand their views of each other beyond the rhetoric of politicians and generals.

Like Kanthapura, Twilight in Delhi (1940) records a culture and a way of life that vanished with the coming of colonialism and modernity. While Raja Rao’s novel is centred on a Hindu village high up on the Ghats, Ali’s novel depicts Muslim life in Delhi during the years 1911-19. Ali deftly evokes the period: the pigeon flying, the street life (the beggars with their blessings), street-food (the milk-sellers, kebab-sellers, sherbet-sellers and other vendors), the cry of the azaan calling the faithful to prayer, the water-carrier with his water skin, life in the gallis and by lanes of the walled city  and in the zenana. The novel depicts Muslim customs: marriage rituals and preparations, death ceremonies, Id celebrations, and Ramzan. It is almost a musical: neighbours, people passing by, beggars, all seem to recite snatches of ghazals. Twilight has parallels with other Muslim narratives like Attia Hosian’s Sunlight on a Broken Column and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. There are parallels as well with Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (which has old Delhi’s dying culture as one of its themes) and In Custody (which laments the decline of Urdu).

Ahmed Ali was one of the contributors to Aangarey, a collection of Urdu short stories which appeared in 1933; it outraged traditional Muslims and was banned. He was also one of founders of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement. Twilight however shows a suspicion of change, inevitable perhaps in a novel about the defeat of a culture and civilization:

Besides, a new Delhi would mean new people, new ways, and  a new world altogether. That may be nothing strange for the newcomers: for the old residents it would mean an intrusion. As it is, strange people had started coming into the city, people from other provinces of India especially the Punjab. They brought with them new customs and new ways. The old culture, which had been preserved within the walls of the ancient town, was in danger of annihilation. Her language, on which Delhi prided herself, would become adulterated and impure, and would lose its beauty and uniqueness of idiom. She would become the city of the dead… But who can cry against the ravages of Time which has destroyed Nineveh and Babylon, Carthage as well as Rome?

A Pakistani stamp issued in 2005 honouring Ahmed Ali (source: pakpost.gov.pk)

A Pakistani stamp issued in 2005 honouring Ahmed Ali (source: pakpost.gov.pk)

Pakistan issued a stamp in honour of Ali. According to that infallible source, Wikipedia, he joined the Pakistan Foreign Service at Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s insistence and was instrumental in setting up the Pakistani embassies in China and Morocco. William Dalrymple gives us a different story in his book on Delhi, City of Djinns (1993). Dalrymple, who tracked down the writer in Karachi, found him living a rather reclusive existence and very bitter: ‘Over the hours I spent with him, he sputtered and spat like a well-warmed frying pan’. Ali told Dalrymple that he had not opted for Pakistan: ‘Pakistan is not a country. Never was. It’s a damn hotchpotch…It’s the country of feudal lords….’ Rather poignantly he said: ‘The civilization I belong to – the civilization of Delhi – came into being through the mingling of two different cultures, Hindu and Muslim. That civilization flourished for one thousand years undisturbed until certain people came along and denied that great mingling had taken place.’ He complained that he had been ‘been weeded out. They don’t publish my books. They have deleted my name. When copies of Twilight in Delhi arrived at the Karachi customs from India, they sent them back: said the book was about the “forbidden” city across the border. They implied the culture was foreign and subversive. Ha!’

Twilight in Delhi: Rupa edition

Twilight in Delhi: Rupa edition

Most teachers and students of Indian English writing would be stumped if asked to mention the names of a few Pakistani Anglophone poets. But Pakistani fiction writers like Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), and Mohsin Hamid (Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) are fairly well known, as are the novelists who were present at this year’s JLF: Jamil Ahmad, (The Wandering Falcon), M A Farooqi, (Between Clay and Dust), and Nadeem Aslam (Season of the Rainbirds, and Maps for Lost Lovers). Almost all of these authors have been published by Indian publishing houses. An older Pakistani writer, Bapsi Sidwa, is familiar to Indian readers because Penguin India brought out her novels, Ice Candy Man and The Crow Eaters (among others). Twilight, too, is available in a highly affordable Rupa edition. Perhaps we should take a cue from our publishing industry and learn to be less exclusive.

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