Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi
The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).
Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow. The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.
But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?
The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.
A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).
Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.
The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.
This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing: human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people.
Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?
(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc. As the Italians say, beh!