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The last of the golden days: M.G. Vassanji’s ‘A Delhi Obsession’

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The one thing the book is not is ‘urgent,’ but it is affecting and appealing in a wistful sort of way

It is hard to imagine a modern-day Indian English novel revolving steadily around Khan Market, Lodhi Gardens, and the IIC bar in Lutyens’ Delhi, and never spinning off into satire or self-loathing. But M.G. Vassanji, a Canadian citizen of Indian origin, must have both a cultural sympathy for the Anglicised Indian, and a foreigner’s immunity from the heaped and heated embarrassments of that identity, because A Delhi Obsession does exactly that.

Love under a shadow

Vassanji’s primary protagonist is the (autobiographical-seeming) Munir Aslam Khan, an ageing Canadian writer at a loose end in life and work, visiting Delhi on a whim (it was his grandfather’s old home). At the bar in the Delhi Recreational Club (a thinly fictionalised India International Centre), Khan bumps into and falls in love with Mohini Singh, an elegant, chatty columnist married to an Indian intelligence official. Their romance develops quickly, but clandestinely, shadowed always by the looming presence of the husband, the government, and the Hindu right-wing, for whom any ostensible ‘love jihad’ is despicable.

The last of the golden days: M.G. Vassanji’s ‘A Delhi Obsession’

Almost without one realising it, Vassanji draws us into the inner lives of Munir and Mohini, slipping into their skin with disarming ease. The reader grows to understand Munir’s anomie; his vague, dwindling success as a writer; his successful but

hollow first marriage; his affectionate but distanced relationship with his daughter. We recognise and sympathise with a man who has “run into dry ground,” whose hopes “now consisted of histories mainly” — as he gropes for personal roots in Delhi, and day-dreams, in tune with his nostalgia, about the last days of the Delhi Sultanate.

Meanwhile, Mohini too is remarkably humanised, as a woman full of good intentions, who lacks forcefulness in any particular direction. She regards herself, instinctively, as a fine product, “an educated, liberal Hindu woman of the generation after Independence,” yet discovers that neither her well-arranged marriage, nor her duties as daughter, wife and mother (worry about her daughter’s poor marks in maths besets her), nor her smattering of intellectualism, nor her habitual Hinduism, has given her a firm psychological foundation. She falls helplessly in love with Munir, in the hectic manner of an adolescent (it is on this dreamy plane that the two are united). In the throes of her extra-marital affair, she visits Shirdi with her family, and gazing “at the benign, holy image of the saint”, can only plead: “I am not a bad person, Baba.”

Bogeymen cometh

And the reader will agree. The careful rendering of these two persons is the major achievement of Vassanji’s novel, and it suffices as a reward for the reader. However, although Vassanji’s particular perspective enables him to access the vulnerability of liberal, Anglicised Indians, whom other writers of our time might insist on exalting in postures of defiance, or satirising cruelly, he does not sound the depths of their human situation either.

This is because the defiant posturing has only been dodged, not understood, while the critical malaise remains unattended. The fault of weakness (which La Rochefoucauld regarded as the only incorrigible fault, inasmuch as there is no external help for it) is writ large not just over Munir and Mohini’s characters but also over the authorial voice. For this reason, Vassanji winds up presenting a pure caricature of Hindu right-wingers (Munir and Mohini’s most significant opponents).

They figure in this book like the bogey-men of a fearful child’s imagination (“the slimy-looking one in the corner at the front — in the pure-white oufit... Don’t look. He’s Jetha Lal of Ahmedabad. A Hindu purifier”); of whom the only thing that is definitely known is that they are absolutely invincible. And while these ectoplasmic forces, we sense, are busy setting up inexorable stratagems to stamp out his protagonists, the author allows Munir and Mohini to ruminate, in the grip of nostalgia, for 230 pages.

The one thing that A Delhi Obsession is not, therefore, is ‘urgent’, as the blurb describes it to be. Instead, it is an appealing, affecting portrayal of a people who have laid down their arms already, and are dressing up in all their finery to die; reminding us, infuriatingly, of all the reasons they had to live.

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Outraged: Times of Strife.

A Delhi Obsession; M.G. Vassanji, Viking/Penguin, ₹499

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 4:29:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-last-of-the-golden-days-mg-vassanjis-a-delhi-obsession-reviewed-by-aditya-sudarshan/article30295116.ece

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