Review: The Walls of Delhi. Uday Prakash (Author), Jason Grunebaum (Translator). UWA PublishingMarch, 2012
Uday Prakash’s three short stories pull back the curtain on life in 21st century India, a place where poverty and exploitation are the daily reality for millions of people. These are by no means just stories that lament the tragedy of poverty; they are compelling, comic and full of life.
Prakash’s storytelling, in the Hindi tradition, will take you on a journey into the lives of three characters whose experiences come to represent a greater reality. The rich descriptions of the hardships endured by the men, women and children paint a vivid picture of the depravity of modern capitalism and the hopefulness of the human spirit that survives in even the most desperate situations.
The first of three novellas, “The Walls of Delhi”, centres on Ramivas, a down and out cleaner who one day discovers a fortune that transforms his life. The description of his time among the street vendors, beggars, cleaners, and lowly paid workers of Delhi gives a truly sensual experience of what life is like for those who were hidden away when the Commonwealth games visited.
It brings to mind the wilful blindness of Western presenters on tourist shows who gush about how breathtaking the “local” markets are in these far flung lands. Yet, the story is not just about individual characters and the trials they face just trying to stay alive, it pulls together pieces to show you something of the whole. In one passage, the narrator ponders:
every time I do a bit of soul searching to try to figure out what’s wrong with me and why I have such bad luck, I come face-to-face with every single rotten thing about this whole system we live in – a system surely created by some underworld gang.
The characters are aware that some small minority is dominating the majority and making their lives a misery. It doesn’t come as a surprise then, to discover that Prakash was once a member of the Communist Party of India. Although he now describes himself as “apolitical” his work, for anyone with progressive or left wing politics, is woven through with the underlying themes of social injustice, corruption, class, and inequality.
In the second story, “Mohandas”, a man who starts out with a belief in fairness and justice gets brutally disavowed at every turn. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. Top of his grade at college, Mohandas secured a degree that he thought would lead him and his family out of poverty, to security, and even to freedom. Although centred on one person’s individual ambition and disillusionment, the story again weaves in so many interconnections that you can’t help but see the bigger picture.
Sometimes the politics is not even underlying, it is right out in the open. At one point, in a step back from the story at hand, the narrator comments:
You may think this is some 125 year old tale, in the tradition of Hindi fiction, it is not. It is a tale of a time right after 9/11…a time when two sovereign Asian nations were reduced to ash and rubble. It’s a tale of time when anybody worshipping gods other than the god of the US and Europe were called fascists, terrorists, religious fanatics. Gas and oil, water, markets, profit, plunder: to get all of this, companies, governments, and armies were killing innocent people every day all over the world.
The final story “Mangosil” is perhaps the most tragic of all. Chandrakant, the servant of a disgusting police inspector, runs away with Shobha, a woman suffering brutal abuse, to start a new life. They make their home in a “half flat” under the stairs of an apartment building with planks of wood for a door, one tap to serve all their needs, and an open sewer stinking two feet below the window. When they are finally able to have a child to create the family they long for, he is born with a condition that poverty has caused, and that only the rich could hope to cure. The boy, Suri, comes to represent a pained wisdom and calm amongst the ravages of everyday life. The narrator describes how one day Suri said to him:
Uncle, there’s no such thing as the Third World. There are only two worlds, and both of them exist everywhere. In one live those who create injustice, and all the rest, the ones who have to put up with injustice, live in the other.
Prakash is a controversial figure in the world of Hindi literature. His work has raised many political debates about the contradictions and catastrophes of contemporary India. This book gives you a real insight into these questions in a way that is both painful and hopeful. For those of us who fight to see an end to injustice, this book is well worth a read.