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Book Review: The Walls of Delhi

By (October 7, 2014) No Comment

Walls of Delhiwalls of delhi cover

by Uday Prakash (translated by Jason Grunebaum

Seven Stories Press, 2014

The Walls of Delhi, a collection of three stories by Hindi author Uday Prakash, is a stunning work of social and psychological commentary, rendered with humor and compassion by an unusually gifted storyteller. These stories, ably translated into English by writer and University of Chicago lecturer Jason Grunebaum, evoke the often-simultaneous comedy and tragedy of life in today’s India.

The sense of multitude coursing through The Walls of Delhi is most deliberately evoked in the collection’s eponymous story about a janitor who, spurred on by his desire to impress his underage mistress, steals from a hidden cache of presumably dirty money. Throughout the story, we read a litany of names and occupations for characters who do not populate so much as haunt the seedy landscape of modern day Delhi. They are identified but somehow lack identity, a delicate effect reminiscent of Gogol’s masterpiece, Dead Souls. The story’s epigram suggests this evocative vagueness, explaining that what rests on the surface is simply “[r]umours, disguised as facts, but nothing but rumours.” The emotional climax occurs, as it were, offstage, and the violence which plagues both the main character’s subconscious and the subterranean landscape of the story itself remain in the fog of hearsay.  

The middle story, “Mohandas,” recounts the travails of a lower-caste college graduate who, despite his degree, consistently loses out to those from higher castes. The imaginative leap of the story is the theft of Mohandas’ identity by one such superior in order to steal from him the job he finally manages to land. This has been aptly described as Kafkaesque, since what at first glance appears as fantasy is quickly recognized as a pitch-perfect reflection of the contemporary state of affairs. This story, while as a whole brilliant, nevertheless contains the collection’s only blemishes, which take the form of a few savage asides railing against Western imperialism. These indictments, far from drawing out the latent political dimensions of the story, distort and weaken an otherwise subtle and deftly-crafted exploration of what it is to lack privilege.  

The final story of the collection, “Mangosil,” has Prakash at his most technically playful, not to say postmodern. It is also, strikingly, the story in which he is the most overtly dark. Like the others, “Mangosil” takes as its center a single Delhian. The first thing we read about Chandrakant Thorat, however, is that he represents a type wiped out by the economic interests of the powerful. With poetic lyricism, Prakash goes on to tell of Thorat’s son, Suri, who is infected with a disease which causes his head to swell to enormous proportions. Suri, however, decides that this is due to the fact that “it keeps knowing things little heads can’t know, or don’t want to.”

Beautiful as that conceit is, this slim volume proves that much can be contained (and revealed) in a small space. Prakash is already a well-established figure in Hindi literature. The Walls of Delhi is likely to draw a much wider audience to this exceptional writer.