30 September 2008

Buzzkill: Dattatreya ke Dukh

(The second instalment of a Time Out column about books set in Delhi)

Dattatreya ke Dukh
Vani Prakashan, Rs 80.
“In Delhi these days, there is a steadily increasing number of people who only meet those people who are of some use to them. Vinayak Dattatreya had stopped meeting such people ages ago, because such people were quite useless to him.” This wry bit of commentary is among the deceptively gentle fragments that make up the Hindi language Dattatreya ke Dukh (The Woes of Dattatreya), Uday Prakash’s marvellous collection of snatches of life in Delhi at the start of the 21st century. Vinayak Dattatreya is a kind of composite of several middle class types, ranging from honest government servant to unsuccessful Hindi poet, benevolent c’lony uncle to lowly research scholar. Through all these avatars, however, he remains bemused, long-suffering and usually impoverished.

Vinayak’s pigheaded idealism casts the world around him into relief. He’s a sort of literary Everyman, simultaneously desultory hero and rambling sutradhar, guiding us through Delhis middling and low. One of the most vivid of these is the sarkari office, a place of pettiness and entrenched hierarchy, where the most ordinary act of humanity, the smallest nonconformist gesture, can make the needle of suspicion turn upon one. In a world where the sahabs are meant never to rise from their desks (unless greeting a social superior), Vinayak insists on courting controversy by strolling down to the pan shop for a cigarette, sometimes even inviting passing colleagues to share a cup of dhaba tea.

His strongest objection is to the buzzer: “He did not think it was right, as a human being, that a harsh mechanical sound produced by the pressing of a lifeless plastic button should result in the arrival at his desk of another flesh-and-blood human being, huffing and puffing.” Having thus aroused suspicion all around, Vinayak is accused of writing a newspaper column by one Antaryami Khairnar that has been exposing corruption and nepotism in his department. The “proof” is a money order that arrives at his official address in Khairnar’s name. Having failed to establish his innocence, Vinayak writes in his diary, “I am not Antaryami Khairnar. But I have no evidence of this truth.” He concludes, “Those things of which there is material evidence in the world are usually untrue.

In another tale, entitled 'Dilli ki Deewar', Vinayak meets a safai karmchari from Samaipur Badli who has found a wall stuffed with black money in a Saket gym. Ramniwas’s adventures open up a post-globalisation Delhi still crisscrossed by Blue Line buses, in which an auto rickshaw ride through Karol Bagh propels its sawaaris into a dream-world of luxury and wish-fulfilment. But in Vinayak’s world, the premonition of doom is never far away. Lies and liars can walk tall, if they don’t shy away from the limelight, while unacceptable truths must stay in the dark. It is through his eyes that we see Delhi’s literary-politico-cultural establishment for the surreal thing that it is, and find the entrance to an invisible tunnel through which “another citizenry”, an unending line of the deaf, dumb and diseased, is spreading slowly out below the city’s surface. Dattatreya has its flaws: it rambles, and it rants too much. But it shows you that the route to a ruthless realism often lies by way of the imaginary.

(All quotations above are translated from the Hindi by Trisha Gupta.)

Time Out Delhi Vol 2, Issue 13, Sep 19 - Oct 2, 2008. 

Update: 'Dilli ki Deewar' is one of three Uday Prakash stories in a new translation by Jason Grunebaum entitled The Walls of Delhi that has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize 2013.

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