Twilight in Delhi
January 22, 2009
There are some books that feel like perfumes. They usher you into a world, a time, an atmosphere. The story is just an excuse to let you wander through the song and air of that time.
You shut these books with an eerie feeling. And you never forget them.
Such is Twilight in Delhi, by Ahmed Ali.
I read it at a time of intense history binge. I was reading every single book I could find about Moghul India, and India until the end of the nineteenth century. Most of my reading were history books, which I enjoyed thoroughly. But I was craving some fiction. I knew the facts, now I wanted to feel them.
Moghul India is mesmerizing, and whoever dives into it emerges dizzy, groggy, and deeply nostalgic. There is this heartbreaking time, at the end of the 19th century when Delhi awakes to the total decrepitude of its old world. Moghul princesses have become beggars, and the infiinite grace with which life was infused slowly surrenders to modernity.
Twilight in Delhi is set at precisely this time, in 1911, in an aristocratic Muslim haveli. Pigeons are flown at dusk and women’s hair still smell like ittar (pure perfume extract). But their world is crumbling. There is no money to sustain the zenana, and no imperial court to sustain Delhi. The English are parading in the city. Holding on to their izzat (honour) and their torn muslins, the people of Delhi witness, immensely sad, the end of their world.
The book, unlike this post, is written very soberly. Each sentence is chiselled, adjectives are few, pathos is banned. It’s just the sky of Delhi and the helplessness of its people.
Twilight in Delhi is, to me, utter perfection. It’s history as a story, India as a poem. I find it so completely enchanting it hurts me to even write about it: there is nothing to say, nothing to add.