The third instalment of a column for Time Out Delhi, about books set in Delhi.
Signs of the Times
Nirmal Verma’s novel Raat ka Reporter, set in Delhi during the Emergency, was published in 1989. Unimaginable as it may seem, that Delhi was a city where it was easy to be completely alone. Not just on the ridge beyond Jhandewalan, where Verma’s protagonist Rishi goes running every morning, but in the midst of the city. The very emptiness of the city’s streets gives Verma his perfect milieu: he couldn’t have found a better metaphorical locale for Rishi’s slow descent into paranoia than New Delhi’s deathly calm.
An atmosphere of menace is established almost before anything happens: Rishi is watching a young girl rolling a tyre down the road when she suddenly disappears from view. “This sort of thing happened often in some parts of New Delhi. Something could be seen for a moment, a clerk riding a bicycle, a slow-creaking cart, an odd crippled beggar, but before the eye could register it, it would vanish, swallowed by some dark lane, and the street would be desolate and lifeless as always, as if it were impossible for an event or an accident to take place there.”
In this portrait of a vast, silent city, there are occasional glimpses of peace, of normalcy. As long as Rishi is running, the world seems to pass by in a yellow haze, punctuated only by the sound of distant bullock carts or the bells of Birla Mandir: as Verma so pithily puts it, “Nothing can go wrong with the life of a man who can go for a run in the morning”. But it’s clear that the running is an escape into routine, from an outside world whose certainties are beginning to crumble under the burden of suspicions and half-truths. The Gole Dakkhana church signboard, on which a new Biblical quotation appears every day, seems to Rishi an augury. The interrupted ring of the telephone, the kites hovering in circles over Urdu Bazar, “like dark rumours” – everything is a sign. The city is transformed into a series of hidden inscriptions, a text whose meaning he must decode in order to survive.
The uncanny thing about this cityscape is how much of it is still with us – the nightly thhak-thhak of the watchman’s stick, the sudden nip in the autumnal air, the sharp, acrid smell of burning leaves – these are as familiar to us from last week as they were to a Delhi resident of the 1970s. There are new signs, too, if we wish to read them – the eerie neon glow of hoardings at night, the gleaming outlines of BRT bus lanes, the blast of air-conditioned air when the automatic mall doors open. What we seem to have lost, in fact, is our capacity for disbelief – and with it, any ability to perceive the city that lies pulsing beneath this thick coat of signs.
Rishi lived in strange times: even as he sank deeper into a morass of unnamable fears, he became more convinced that every report written “is a proof, not of their truth, but of your lie”. But our time is stranger still. We believe everything we read, or pretend to. The fear has become part of our skin, we wear it as armour, proudly.
Raat Ka Reporter, by Nirmal Verma, Rajkamal Prakashan, Rs 125
Translated as Dark Dispatches, by Alok Bhalla, HarperCollins,Rs 70
Back of the Book, Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 17, Nov 14-27, 2008