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Authors: Khushwant Singh

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Delhi

BOOK: Delhi
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‘I RETURN TO DELHI AS I RETURN TO MY
MISTRESS BHAGMATI WHEN I HAVE HAD MY FILL
OF WHORING IN FOREIGH LANDS …’

 

Thus begins Khushwant Singh’s vast, erotic, irreverent magnum opus on the city of Delhi. The principal narrator of the saga, which extends over six hundred years, is a bawdy, ageing reprobate who loves Delhi as much as he does the
hijda
whore Bhagmati–half man, half woman with the sexual inventiveness and energy of both the sexes. Travelling through time, space and history to ‘discover’ his beloved city, the narrator meets a myriad of people–poets and princes, saints and sultans, temptresses and traitors, emperors and eunuchs–who have participated in [and been witness to]  the major historical forces that have shaped and endowed Delhi with its very special mystique… And as we accompany the narrator on his epic journey we find the city of emperors transformed and immortalized in our minds for ever.

 

Cover photograph by Prateek Raghav

 

 

 

 

 

PENGUIN BOOKS

DELHI: A NOVEL

 

Khushwant Singh is India’s best-known writer and columnist. He has been founder-editor of
Yojna
, and editor of the
Illustrated Weekly of India
, the
National Herald
and the
Hindustan Times
. He is also the author of several books, which include the novels
Train to Pakistan
,
I shall Not hear the Nightingale
,
Delhi
and
The Company of Women
; the classic two-volume
A History of the Sikhs
; and a number of translations and non-fiction books on Sikh religion and culture, Delhi, nature and current affairs. His autobiography,
Truth
,
Love and a Little
Malice
, was published in 2002.

 

Khushwant Singh was a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, but returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army.

 

Delhi

a novel

KHUSHWANT SINGH

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110017, India

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

Penguin Group (NZ),67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

Penguin Group (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

 

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

First published by Penguin Books India 1990

 

Copyright © Khushwant Singh 1990

 

All rights reserved

 

ISBN 978-01-4012-619-8

 

This Digital Edition published 2011. e-ISBN: 978-81-8475-111-6

Digital conversion prepared by DK Digital Media, India.

 

This novel, which took me over twenty years to write, I dedicate to my son Rahul Singh and his friend Niloufer Billimoria

 

This e-book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser and without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above-mentioned publisher of this e-book.

Foreword to the Paperback Edition

I cannot yet believe that the first hardcover edition of my novel sold out before a copy was available in the book-stores. Or that a second and a third edition should have to be printed within a fortnight of the first. It is enough to turn the head of any writer. It has mine.

 

It took me twenty-five years to piece together this story spanning several centuries of history. I put in it all I had in me as a writer: love, lust, sex, hate, vendetta and violence–and above all, tears. I did not write this novel with any audience in mind. All I wanted to do was tell my readers what I learnt about the city roaming among its ancient ruins, its congested bazaars, its diplomatic corps and its cocktail parties. My only aim was to get them to know Delhi and love it as much as I do. The readers’ response has been most gratifying and gives me hope that I may achieve my object.

 

 

New Delhi                                           Khushwant Singh

July 1990

A Note from the Author

In this novel I have tried to tell the story of Delhi from its earliest beginnings to the present times. I constructed it from records chronicled by eye-witnesses. Hence most of it is told in the first person. History provided me with the skeleton. I covered it with flesh and injected blood and a lot of seminal fluid into it. It took me twenty-five years to do so. I am not sure whether I have succeeded in my venture.

 

Some chapters in an earlier draft were published in
Evergreen
Review
of New York and
The Illustrated Weekly of India.

 

New Delhi                                                         Khushwant Singh

15 September 1989

I asked my soul: What is Delhi?

She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

 

 

1
Delhi

I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Bhagmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands. Delhi and Bhagmati have a lot in common. Having been long misused by rough people they have learnt to conceal their seductive charms under a mask of repulsive ugliness. It is only to their lovers, among whom I count myself, that they reveal their true selves.

To the stranger Delhi may appear like a gangrenous accretion of noisy bazaars and mean-looking hovels growing round a few tumble-down forts and mosques along a dead river. If he ventures into its narrow, winding lanes, the stench of raw sewage may bring vomit to his throat. The citizens of Delhi do little to endear themselves to anyone. They spit phlegm and bloody
betel
-juice everywhere; they urinate and defecate whenever and wherever the urge overtakes them; they are loud-mouthed, express familiarity with incestuous abuse and scratch their privates while they talk.

It is the same with Bhagmati. Those who do not know her find her unattractive. She is dark and has pock-marks on her face. She is short and squat; her teeth are uneven and yellowed as a result of chewing tobacco and smoking
beedis
. Her clothes are loud, her voice louder; her speech bawdy and her manners worse.

This is, as I say, only on the surface–like the evil-smelling oil people smear on their skins to repel mosquitoes, midges and other blood-sucking vermin. What you have to do for things to appear different is to cultivate a sense of belonging to Delhi and an attachment to someone like Bhagmati. Then the skies over Delhi’s marbled palaces turn an aquamarine blue; its domed mosques and pencil-like minarets are spanned by rainbows, the earth exudes the earthy aroma of
khas
, of jasmine and of
maulsari.
Then the dusky Bhagmati glides towards you swaying her ample hips like a temple dancer; her mouth smells of fresh cloves and she speaks like her Imperial Majesty the Empress of Hindustan. Only when making love does she behave, as every woman should, like a lusty harlot. It is a simple formula: use your heart not your head, your emotion not your reason.

I make Delhi and Bhagmati sound very mysterious. The truth is that I am somewhat confused in my thoughts. What I am trying to say is that although I detest living in Delhi and am ashamed of my liaison with Bhagmati, I cannot keep away from either for too long. In these pages I will explain the strange paradox of my lifelong, love-hate affair with the city and the woman. It may read like a
Fucking Man’s Guide to
Delhi: Past and Present
but that is not what I mean it to be.

*

The plane touches down at Palam at 2100 hours, one hour behind schedule. ‘Air-India planes used to arrive on the dot till the government took it over’ says someone. A voice over the speaker system orders us to remain seated. ‘Why?’ I demand of an air hostess gliding past me. She confides in my ear: ‘Health!’ India, mother of most diseases known to mankind, does not want to add any more to her list. We sit encapsuled in light, talking in whispers and preventing our newspapers from rustling.

Someone slaps the plane with a heavy hand: thump, thump. The steward yanks open the door. Two men in medical white waft in with a gust of hot air. They go down the aisle distributing printed forms. We busy ourselves filling in the answers: Where did you spend the last ten days? Nine days? Yesterday? One man takes a canister out of his pocket and strides up the aisle spraying us with hospital smell. We can disembark.

We file out. Near the base of the ramp attached to the first class exit stands an enormous grey Rolls-Royce bearing the President’s three-faced lion insignia on its numberplate. Beside the car, stand the President’s ADC and an orderly with an armful of flowers. Behind them are half-a-dozen photographers with cameras raised to their noses. A white woman carrying a fur coat on one arm and a hat-box in the other comes down the steps. Flash bulbs explode. The ADC clicks his heels and salutes. He takes the white woman’s fur coat and hat-box and hands them to the orderly. He garlands the woman, presents her with the bouquets and salutes her again. She flashes her teeth at him. They get into the Rolls-Royce. The Rolls-Royce purrs away into the dark.

Who is she?

We are herded together and directed to follow an Air-India official. We shade our eyes against the glare of airport lights and showers of moths. We skirt past long-snouted bandicoots skating on their bellies and enter a door marked International.’ A large poster with a picture of Pandit Nehru bids us
Welcome to India.

A police sergeant scrutinizes our health forms and stacks them in the ‘out’ basket on his table. A sub-inspector inspects our passports, stamps them and hands them back to us. A customs officer gives us sheafs of forms to fill in triplicate. Three each for what we have bought abroad; three each for what we have in foreign currency. We spend half-an-hour filling them. Customs men eye us to see if our expressions betray undeclared items. We look bored; our expressions betray nothing.

Forty minutes later trollies rattle into the customs shed. Coolies offload cases on the floor. I locate my valise and grab a customs inspector. I have bought nothing and have no foreign currency. He does not believe me. He examines my declaration forms and my passport. He opens my valise and fires a stream of questions as he digs into my clothes.

‘Any whisky-shisky?’

‘No.’

‘No tape recorder?’

‘No.’

‘Transistor-shranzistor?’

‘No.’

‘Camera-shamera?’

‘No.’

‘Watch-shotch?’

‘No.’

He grabs my hand and examines the shiny new Vulcan alarm watch on my wrist. I bought it at Beirut’s duty-free shop in the airport store for £35.

‘How much?’

I produce a receipt for the watch I bought for my cook which is tucked in my hip-pocket. ‘Seven pounds.’

He is a bad loser. He chalks my valise as if he were writing ‘Fuck off’ One takes a lot from these customs bastards.

A porter grabs my valise. We pierce through a wall of clamorous taxi-drivers and find a cab. The porter dumps my valise on the rear seat and exclaims: ‘Okay sir,
salaam!’
Airport rules say don’t tip porters. He takes five rupees off me.

The Sikh cab-driver has a Sikh friend in the front seat. Twenty minutes later we arrive at my destination. The cab-driver lights a match and reads the meter, ‘Eighteen fifty plus two for the luggage. Twenty fifty.’

‘Eighteen fifty?’ I pack as much disbelief as I can into my voice. It is more than double what I paid on my way out to Palam airport a few weeks ago.

‘Eighteen fifty,’ repeats the cabbie. His friend lights another match and reads: ‘Eighteen fifty. See meter.’

One Sikh may argue with one Sikh. One Sikh must never argue with two Sikhs–certainly not after dark. I pay twenty rupees fifty paise plus another two rupees as tip.

The night-watchman of our block of apartments is also a Sikh. When I go out of Delhi, I leave the key of my flat with him. He is an honest fellow but a little soft under his turban. He was discharged from the army for his eccentricities. Although he was only a truck-driver he never forgets he once wore a soldier’s uniform. He jumps up from his
charpoy
and orders himself: ‘Salute!’ And salutes me as if I were the colonel of his regiment. ‘How was His Majesty the King of England?’ he asks me in English.

‘England now has a Queen.’

He thinks that a matter of small detail. ‘Very well, sir. Did you ask His–beg pardon–Her Majesty, why he/she did not answer my letters?’

‘Budh Singh, how long have you been like this?’ I enquire very gently. Budh (knowledge) Singh gets this way three times in the year; then he becomes a Budhoo (simpleton) Singh. One has to be very gentle with Budhoo Singh.

His eyes burn. ‘You think I mad?’ he screams. ‘You want dismiss me?’ I do not answer. He unlocks the door, switches on the light and lets me in. He carries my valise to the unlit bedroom mumbling to himself. He comes back and presents me the key of the apartment with both his hands like a vanquished general surrendering his sword. ‘Sir, here is your key and here is your job!’

‘Budh Singh, I only asked you how long you have been like this,’ I say taking the key.

‘Yes, but I know truth,’ says he peering into my eyes. ‘Public say Budh is Budhoo again. Sahib sack him when he back from foreign. I say
Hunooz Dilli Door Ast:
you know what that mean? It is a long way to Delhi.’

‘But I am back in Delhi,’ I remind him. He looks at me more intensely. ‘Okay! Forgive and forget.’

He assures me the apartment has been swept, furniture dusted. ‘All okay. Cold machine okay, air-condition okay. Come and look,’ he commands. I follow him to the bedroom and press the switch.
Click.
No result.
Click, clock, click, clock.
No result. ‘Excuse me, bulb fooze,’ explains Budh Singh. He presses another switch. The burst of light gives him a shock. He leaps in the air and pirouettes like a dancing
dervish
.

He puts a finger to his turban and explains. ‘Springtime something happen here. Don’t mind, salute!’

‘It will pass,’ I reassure him. He comes close to me till his beard almost touches mine. He says in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘Excuse me! Your
hijda
come many time to enquire if you back.’

Budh Singh does not like my mistress Bhagmati because she called him Pagal (mad) Singh. Budh Singh has never forgiven her. He calls her a him or a
hijda
(hermaphrodite). Bhagmati has a small bosom and a heavy voice. ‘Excuse me,’ he confides to my beard, ‘everyone is talking about it. They say, take woman, take boy—okay! But a
hijda
! That’s not nice. Don’t mind my saying so!’

I say nothing. Budh Singh takes it as a reprimand. He stands stiffly to attention, salutes for the umpteenth time and orders himself: ‘Right turn!’ He turns right. ‘By the left, quick march.’ And marches out with measured steps.

Hah!

I peel off my clothes and go into the bathroom. I turn on the tap. A muddy ooze trickles down into the bucket. It is followed by a little muddy water. Then a fart. No water. I give up.

I go to my study, pick up the phone and dial the number of the caretaker on night duty. Two girls are on the line yakking away about their Daddyji and Uncleji. I put down the receiver, slap a mosquito against my paunch and try again. They are still at it; this time about their Mummyji and Auntyji. I put down the receiver, extract fluff out of my navel, inhale its shitty smell and try a third time. They are exulting over the piquancy of the
chaat
in Bengali Market: ‘Yum! Yum!’ I lose my temper and tell them that it is almost midnight and they should be doing what their Mummyjis are doing to their Daddyjis. ‘Some dirty fellow on our line,’ says one. ‘Will buzz you later. Ta-ta.’

I dial my number. Engaged. Three minutes later I dial again. Engaged. I dial Complaints. The man at the other end tells me to dial Assistance. I dial Assistance. This operator tells me: ‘Number out of order please, dial Complaints.’ I give up.

I go to my bedroom to let the air-conditioner cool my naked flesh and raw temper. It welcomes me with a distinct lowering of tone, but soon its drone lulls me to slumber. In a short while, however, it resents my indifference and goes off in a sulk. The bedroom becomes like the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Power cut. No light, no fan. I come out into my patch of garden and flop into a canechair. It’s hot, humid, dark and still. There are a few stars, but they are very very far away. And there are too many mosquitoes. I think angry thoughts. I will write letters to the papers about delays at the airport, the manners of customs inspectors, cheating by cab-drivers, the inefficiency of the electricity company, Delhi telephones, Delhi water supply.... Then I think of Bhagmati. I wonder how much whoring she has done while I have been away. She likes to tell me of her exploits because she knows it rouses my desire for her. I sit in the dark many hours. I am angry, I am wanton. Then less angry, more wanton. A pale, old moon wanders into the sky. A light goes up in the temple behind my apartment. The electricity is back when it is not needed. I get up and drag my feet into the sitting-room.

I switch on the table-lamp. 5.15 a.m. I throw open the window. The curtains flutter. A cool breeze fragrant with the
madhumalati
which covers the outside wall drives away the dank fuzz of yesterday’s dead air. I sink into my armchair and gaze out of the window. Streetlights go off with a silent bang. Through the foliage of the mulberry tree appears the grey dawn.

Flying foxes wing their soundless way back to perch on massive
arjun
trees. The old lady who lives in the apartment above mine slish-sloshes along the road. She stops by my hibiscus hedge, looks around to see if anyone is looking, quickly plucks some flowers, thrusts them in her
dupatta
and slish-sloshes on towards the temple. Her old man follows her. He also stops by my hedge, looks around to see if anyone is listening, presses his paunch, and lets out a long, painful fart. He walks on with a lighter step and a ‘who did that?’ look on his face. A light goes on in the opposite block. A woman draws the curtains, ties her untidy hair into a bun and stretches her arms towards me. More lights are switched on and off. The morning star is barely visible in the pink sky. Crows begin cawing to each other. Sparrows start quarrelling in the mulberry tree. The muezzin’s voice rises to the heavens. Temple bells peal to awaken the gods from their slumbers. The milkman cycles round the block with a noisy clanging of milkcans. Another cyclist follows tinkling his bell and shouting
‘Paperwalla! Ishtaitman, Taim of India, Hindustan Taim,
Express, Herald, paperwalla!’
I hear the shush of papers being pushed under my door. I stay in my armchair. The morning breeze wafts the light of dawn into the room. It is cool, fragrant, pregnant with sadness and longing; it is the
bad-i
-saba
–the morning breeze–sacred to lovers. And I am back in my beloved city.

*

I settle down to the
Hindustan Times.
The front page has a picture of the white woman who came off the plane last night. ‘Lady Hoity-Toity says it’s great to be back home in Delhi.’ So that’s who she is! She has come to collect material for a book on archaeology. She is staying with the President at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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