The Walls of Delhi, Uday Prakash, Translated by Jason Grunebaum, Hachette India, 2012.
Stories on cities, non-fictive accounts of their people, and grand narratives of their past and present have become a fad of late. Given its political and demographic position, New Delhi is naturally one to earn such interests. Like all big cities, Delhi has its allures of opportunity and advancement mixed in with its dark secrets and insatiable hunger. The Walls of Delhi, a collection of three stories by Uday Prakash, one of India’s finest contemporary Hindi-language writers, is set within the changing Delhi landscape. These are tales from its underbelly. It is a journey into the megalopolis’s subaltern mass, hidden beneath its sprawling infrastructure and glitzy exterior. The turmoil and tragedies in these quaintly South Asian stories has Delhi siting silent and brooding in the background.
Translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi portrays a Kafkaesque world where the individual is trapped within the gridlock of bureaucracy and power. The trap hardly matters for his characters; they take it as part of their being. However, it is the few choices and the resultant hope that is the source of their greatest anguish. Prakash’s characters are so far beneath the power dynamics of the Delhi machine that they are mostly forgotten, like the flies that swarm around a garbage dump. Ironically almost, their survival is linked to their insignificance. To be noticed is dangerous, as revealed in the award-winning and highly popular Mohandas, the second story in the collection. Prakash’s stories shift through the voiceless mass of Delhi as he delves into their lives. The plots and twists are predictable while death, decay and disease central themea. Sadly and frustratingly, these are the certainties his characters have. But even here, there is the occasional resurgence of the inexplicable and magical, moments that last just long enough and are remembered just clearly enough to question the inevitability of these certainties.
The value of this translation is self-evident once one starts reading the book – it’s a hard book to put down or leave midway. It reveals a world where English is the language spoken from above and even in translation, resists any belonging to this world. The stories provide voyeuristic glimpses of the unnoticed and peripheral. They blur the lines between fact and fiction and taint the reader with the grime of the city.