Twilight in Delhi: A Novel

By Ahmad Ali

First published by Hogarth Press, London 1940.

Delhi inspired many poets who were in love with the city both good and bad, both in its flourishing and its ruins. “Humne maana ki dakkan mein hai bahut qadre sukhan; Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar” (We hear that poetry is highly valued in the Deccan these days but, Zauq, who could bear to leave behind the alleys of Delhi). If the haunting words of Zauq, Bahadur Shah’s court poet, weren’t enough to show his love for Delhi, perhaps what Ghalib says could be the last word on the city: “Ik roz apni rooh se poocha, ki Dilli kya hai, to yun jawab main keh gaye, yeh duniya mano jism hai aur Dilli uski jaan (I asked my soul, “What is Delhi?” She replied, “The world is the body, Delhi its soul”).

These poetic sighs, so to speak, were intended for Shahjahanabad, the seventh city of Delhi. Built in 1639 by Shah Jahan, who moved the Mughal capital from Agra to the new place, it remained the capital of the Mughal Empire until its fall in 1857. Once the pride of the Orient, Shahjahanabad gradually lost its glory after the failure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the ascendancy of the British Raj. The syncretic Hindustani culture – sophisticated and robust – that developed in the walled city slowly crumbled and finally was destroyed beyond recognition by the time Lutyens’ Delhi, being the eighth city, came into being after the Delhi Durbar in 1911.

However, the best impression of the decadence of an entire culture may not be found in the words of the great poets of the time. William Darlymple, probably Delhi’s most famous living chronicler, says the best depiction of the city that was destroyed in 1947 is not in the photographs or the jaded memories of the survivors, but in this thin novel by Ahmed Ali . First published in 1940 with the help and support of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, most copies of Twilight in Delhi were destroyed in the Hogarth Press warehouse during German air raids in Britain . There was no reprinting and the book was first forgotten during World War II and then in the holocaust of the partition of India.

Meanwhile, by the whim of fate, Ahmed Ali – who was a diplomat serving in China under the Imperial Government of India – was barred from returning to India when the subcontinent was split in two. Thus Delhi’s most distinguished chronicler was barred from entering the city and he was forced to relocate to Karachi. Several decades later, the Oxford University Press published the paperback edition of Ahmed Ali’s book, after which it began to receive the recognition it deserved. The 1994 edition of the book features a bitterly powerful introduction by the writer recounting the chain of events surrounding the publication of the book and his transformation into persona non grata in the city he loved and desired. Ahmed Ali died the same year.

The novel follows the fortunes of a traditional Muslim family living in the walled city. Protagonist Mir Nihal is the family patriarch who disapproves of his son Ashgar’s courtship with a low-born Muslim named Bilqeece. As Ashgar and Bilqeece’s love blossoms (and then decays), Darlymple rightly points out that “all the dying people of Shahjahanabad are evoked: pigeon fanciers and poets, alchemists and Sufis, beggars and traders”.

As a frequent visitor to some of the old town’s narrow alleys and alleys, I could quickly relate to many of the book’s descriptions. Example of this walk to the house of Mir Nihal:

“So he descended directly from Chandni Chowk, towards the Clock Tower to pass through Balli Maran, the nearest route to his home. As he passed the Clock Tower, he saw a number of carts of camels meandering, creaking, moaning, moving slowly like snails. , from the Company gardens to Khari Baoli, the grain market. When he arrived at the Kucha Pundit, he bought a piece of unripe mangoes to roast in the oven and prepare a fresh sorbet”.

The book is full of episodes that vividly portray the culture of the place, a culture that was born and nurtured within the city walls and was demolished at the turn of British ascendancy in Delhi. Mir Nihal is a typical feudal gentleman of the time and his hobbies bear witness to this. Besides pigeon flying, he was fond of alchemy and medicine. Although he has a devoted wife in Begam Nihal, he also has a young mistress Babban Jaan under his employ. Because, at that time, even prostitutes had important roles in social life: “Prostitutes were of two kinds, cultivated and whores. Cultivated were frequented by the rich and well-to-do. Young men were sent to them to learn good manners and the art of polite conversation; and old people came to enjoy their dancing, music and company in general.”

The novel is largely forgotten even in the city it immortalized. But, as William Darlymple says, “Twilight in Delhi is not only a very beautiful novel, it is also an irreplaceable document of the defeated life and culture of pre-war Delhi”. After reading the novel, I completely agree with Darlymple but for the effusive praise he gave for Ahmed Ali’s book in City of Djinns, I wouldn’t have known.

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