Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Peacock Throne

History can often be a treacherous territory. Though history is written by the victors, they may not necessarily come out winners in the end. As nations and communities march from one historical movement to another, those who control the levers of power change. New rulers emerge, often those who were once subjects themselves. They seige the seat of power and then reinterpret and rewrite history. How the past is evaluated thus depends on which side of the divide one finds oneself.

And the whole thing becomes even more complicated for those who, as pawns and players on the chessboard of politics, dwell in a location that was once a seat of power for centuries. Chandani Chowk, the jewel of Old Delhi, where Sujit Saraf sets his second novel, The Peacock Throne, is one such place.

The choice of Chandani Chowk as the novel's setting is important because of its historical importance. That's where the seat of power--The Peacock Throne--was located for centuries. What does that baggage of history do to its people? What do they do with it?

In a scene set in Red Fort's Divan-i-Khas, Ramvilas, a political go-between of Chandani Chowk's seths, describes the Peacock Throne to Gita, a Nepali prosititute of GB Road, his beloved: "That is where the Peacock Throne stood. Thousands of diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, watched over by two peacocks. Enough to build entire cities, equal to the revenue of entire provinces! And this man--this wasteful lecher--is whom we call the greatest builder of all. His sons fought over the Peacock Throne. When one sat on it, he was worst of all four!

"... It still stands here and every one wants to mount it. The prime minister, the chief minister, ministers, MPs, MLAs, councillors, Naresh Agarwal, Harilal, Sohan Lal, Parvati, every whore and every chaivala in Chandani Chowk. He who sits on the Peacock Throne rules the empire of Hindustan."

A tad too erudite for a character like Ramvilas, but such are the kind of people who live in this fictional Chandani Chowk. From a smooth-skinned prostitute, Gita transforms into the the head of Stree, an NGO for hookers. Ramvilas who works for a seth in his perfumery, is a political fixer. But Gita and Ramvilas are not protagonists of this novel.

For that purpose all we have is a simple Chaivala (tea seller), Gopal Pandey, whose story is central to the narrative. Then there is a sikh character, Kartar Singh, whose son was killed in the 1984 anti-sikh riots of Delhi. But he and his wife were miraculously saved by Gopal Pandey.

Kartar Singh, having abandoned his electronics merchandise business (due to the competition from cheap Chinese electronics goods flooding the market) and havala and cricket bookie businesses, grows political ambitions. Kartar Singh believes that Delhi is a city of 'bastards'. "Too many people come to Delhi; they do not belong here,' he grumbles. He is defeated in assembly polls by Suleman Miyan, the bete noire of Hindu nationalists, himself a Muslim communal politician. Suleman Miyan uses his chamcha, Ibrahim Miyan, and an social worker-turned-journalist, Chitra, to carry out his political agenda.

Chitra, however, has her own agenda, symbolizing the ambitions of a power-hungry mediaperson. Chitra's NGO, Sparrows, has Mussabir and Gauhar, a Bangladeshi illegal immigrant, who get by their lives by trading their bodies and doing odd-jobs for the political fixers. "There are only two ways to make money in this world, pigeon fights and getting your arse fucked," says Mussabir.

In an ironic twist, Suleman and Ibrahim send the two Muslim boys to Ayodhya as kar sevaks to blow up the Babri Mosque. One of them never returns, the other goes into hiding. Gopal Pandey, who used to see his dead son Mukesh in the Bangladeshi Gauher and allowed him to sleep in his tea kiosk, gets heartbroken. "All my sons die," mourns Gopal. "Even Gauher." In the earlier part of the story, Gopal's son is set on fire by Ramvilas, during a protest against the Mandal commission, on the behest of the seths, the council members of the Hindu nationalist party.

Trading on these dead bodies are the seths of Chandani Chowk whose brand of politics feeds on the Hindu hatred. They want to undo the damage done by a secular Nehru to India. Seth Sohan Lal has nothing but despise for Nehru: "A man who fell for white women and grovelled before white men, who peddled unmanly, impractical and self-defeating pacifism with impunity, making India ridiculous in the eyes of the world... How he had pandered to the Musalmans and danced with Naga and Mizo tribals!"

In an episode in which the Bangladeshi boy Gauhar pissess on the samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi in a public protest, Seth Sohan Lal does not much mind the pissing act in Rajghat: "It was time someone pissed on the Mahatma, even if it had to be a one-handed Bangladeshi. Who was the Mahatma anyway? A fornicator, a dirty old man with scandalous ideas, a man gone soft on Musalmans, a man endowed with senility with a dangerous degree of power, thankfully stopped before he could lay waste the new Indian nation with his constant appeasement of Musalmans. Worst of all, he was the man who foisted Nehru--a Musalman in Hindu garb--on the country."

Addressing a rally of whores, MLA Harilal Gupta justifies the claim for Babri Masjid: "Why do Musalmans claim this structure, which they call Babri Masjid as if it really were a mosque, when Raam Lalla himself chose to walk into his temple? We will build out temple there, my sisters, we will build it on that very inch of land!"

On the other hand, Suleman has own reasons to foment Muslim communalism. He thinks that Indian Muslims missed the bus to Pakistan 45 years ago, and now "all fifteen crore of us in this country are WT (without ticket)." "We are an army of WT passengers and the conductor is coming toward us," he says.

Explaining to Gauhar in a Madrasa setting why he needed to destroy the Babri Masjid, he says: "Hindus are unmanly and effiminate. They will strike against the walls and they will fall to the ground. Do you think they will so much as scratch a masjid protected by Allah? And if they do not,who will punish them for the sin? A Musalman must bring down retribution on their heads. Once the masjid has fallen, the Musalmans of India will not sit still...Before the dust from the Masjid settles, our armies will crush the kafirs who have come to attack. But unless the masjid falls the Musalmans will not be aroused. It is important that the masjid fall--it is necessary!"

Coming through these characters is an India that is far from its lofty image of a great nation. Is this the real India, the reader might wonder. Those who know India at the grassroots levels, who have tasted the dust of its streets and kuchas, would vouch for it. That is at least how things were in the 1980 and 90s. As novelist Salman Rushdie noted in an essay in 1987: "J K Galbaith's description of India as 'functioning anarchy' still fits, but the stresses on the country have never been so great. Does India exist? If it doesn't, the explanation is to be found in a single word: communalism. The politics of religious hatred." (The Riddle of Midnight: India, 1987)

To the credit of Sujit Saraf, The Peacock Throne is the acknowledgement of an India, a vast swathe of its billion plus people, who believe that a proud Hindu India should come out of the poisonous penumbra of its Mughal, nay Muslim, past and rewrite the fate of this country. In the 1990s, India's liberal and secular intelligentsia referred to this group as the lunatic fringe, but they did not accurately gauge its power and its ability to manipulate the religiously hidebound masses of India. The result was a fanatical Hindu wave that enabled a Hinduvta-oriented party occupy the Peacock Throne for the first time in independent India.

However, it was a short-lived experience, as forces of globalisation made people worry more about roti than Ram. Clearly, the making of history never stops. Sujit's tapestry of narrative, however, would have been richer if there were characters who could have balanced its darkness, but perhaps, everyone gets soiled in the drain of politics.

In this novel, Delhi hardly exists beyond the Chandani Chowk. There is even a disregard for New Delhi as Suleman says at one point: "I myself hate this city, this so-called New Delhi. This is not Dilli, this is not India, this is Englistan. Look at these people! Poodles of the English sahibs. These are the people who should fear me because it is them I shall first destroy."

But if Delhi is about power and politics, then it is definitely a Delhi novel, even though it does not have a larger than life protagonist. Gopal Pandey, the central character, hardly looks like a hero--an ordinary Indian who is more a pawn than a master. But that's how all ordinary poor Indians are. In the world of Indian politics, what's true of Gopal Pandey is also true of millions of other Gopal Pandeys living in the nooks and crannies of India, plying their trade or ploughing their fields or merely serving their masters and manipulators in the great game of democracy.

It's a novel in the tradition of realistic literature. The story often becomes predictable, its minutiae even annoyingly boring in places, for those who are aware of the historical events being dealt with here. What saves the narrative though is the touch of its common-man humour that carries the work into the realms of parody, satire, and even mock epic. But this kind of blatant realism is a dangerous territory for a work of art. As Saul Bellow once noted, the more realistic you are the more you threaten the grounds of your own art. In that sense, The Peacock Throne, despite being an important work failes to rise to literary greatness as its author doesn't meet the challenge of depicting Old Delhi's reality in some extraordinary fashion.

[Excerpts from a soon to be published review]