Translation Books

City of the ragged heart: Review of M. Mukundan’s ‘Delhi: A Soliloquy’

When do we start thinking of an adopted homeland as ours, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health? M. Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy is an ode to our Delhi, from the perspective of the protagonist, Sahadevan, and Devi and Shreedharanunni and Lalitha and Kunhikrishnan and all the other wandering Malayali souls who drifted to the capital city over the decades and became a part of it. It soon transforms from a destination for economic success to something that has a hold over your heart; why else would Dasappan, the poor, desperate barber — always called in Delhi terms the nai — cling on to his life in the city for so long, scraping together enough money for a bare existence, when he could be enjoying the same poverty in Kerala but with his family close by and with less filth?

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Wretched filth and direst poverty are recurring features, particularly as a shock and reality check for the new arrivals who land up dreaming of Shahjahanabad or Pandit Nehru’s red rose buttonhole. The main characters, however, are a little more middle-class. Just about. They may not be struggling to survive, but until the tailend of the book they struggle to do much more than survive. Saving up or improving one’s situation are daunting prospects in this bleak depiction of pre-liberalisation India, which calls to mind the old jibes about the Hindu rate of growth. If the story could be said to have a villain, it’s the economic hopelessness and stagnation.

Mukundan’s typical melancholy suffuses this tour de force of the lives of Delhi Malayalis in the second half of the 20th century, from the wars of the 1960s to the Emergency and vasectomies, the anti-Sikh riots and New India. His own lived experience of decades in Delhi lends it an incomparable authenticity, and there’s plenty to elicit a smile from those familiar with the Malayali shops of INA Market or the Uttara Guruvayurappan Temple in Mayur Vihar. The English translation by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K. is a clean and lucid rendering of Mukundan’s brilliant Malayalam original.

Delhi: A Soliloquy; M. Mukundan, trs Fathima E.V. & Nandakumar K., Westland (Eka), ₹799

rohan.m@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 10:57:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/city-of-the-ragged-heart-review-of-m-mukundans-delhi-a-soliloquy/article33470219.ece

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