So here we all were, waiting for the Great Delhi Novel, an epic that would capture the spirit and ethos of our city (yes yes, Delhi does have those things!) the way Shantaram, Sacred Games and Maximum City did for Mumbai. And then Sujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne slipped in through the back door. This isn’t the Great Delhi Novel but it is indubitably the Great Chandni Chowk Novel – though “great” only in the sense of Very, Very Large (and ambitious).
There are three things about The Peacock Throne that astonished me. First, its determined placing of Chandni Chowk at the centre of the universe and its refusal to step outside the bylanes of this celebrated north Delhi colony for more than a couple of its 750 pages (so much so that late in the book when a chapter opens with a brief description of a drive around the Safdarjung airport/AIIMS flyover, I had a mild attack of agoraphobia).
Second, the fact that someone with a full-time job (Saraf works as a research scientist in California) and a family had the energy to take the often-tedious interactions of 8-9 characters and expand them into a tome of this size. And third, that his editor didn’t see fit to cut this laborious book by at least 50 per cent.
It's also worrying that so much care and hard work should have gone into creating something that ends up spectacularly mediocre. In a couple of earlier posts (including this one on Sacred Games) I’ve touched on the dangers of writing an epic: an author can get so involved with the minutiae of several different lives, so intent on exploring each strand in detail, that it’s difficult to know when (or how, or if) to stop. Parts of Sacred Games exhausted me as a reader though I thought very highly of that book on the whole. I felt that exhaustion many times over while plodding through The Peacock Throne. (Full disclosure: I had to speed-read the final 200 pages. Newsweek’s Malcolm Jones does have a point in this essay about how far a reviewer must take his responsibilities.)
The Peacock Throne uses Chandni Chowk and its Hindu, Muslim and Sikh inhabitants (including an unassuming tea-seller, a one-handed Bangladeshi boy who becomes a pawn in political games, an idealistic young woman running a school for street children, the prostitutes of the legendary G B Road, and a few wealthy traders – members of the local IPP party – involved in power struggles) as a microcosm of Indian society, specifically the lower-middle class. Covering a period between 1984 (when Indira Gandhi was assassinated) and 1998 (the year the BJP, replaced here by the IPP, came to power), it touches on such key events as the Mandal Commission riots of 1990 and the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The shifting equations between the book’s main characters reflect the subtle social and political changes that resulted from these incidents.
This is a promising idea (though also suspiciously like writing a history textbook disguised as a novel) and it’s well executed in the first dozen or so chapters. Saraf shows an eye for character and detail, especially in noting the relationship between “little people” – concerned with nothing more than their day-to-day existence – and the big events they find themselves reluctantly caught up in. “Will people stop drinking tea because Indira Gandhi is dead?” Gopal the chai-wallah wonders aloud, as he attempts to do business on a day when the entire area is in a state of panic. In another part of the market on the same day, a young paratha-stealer named Gauhar thinks police jeeps have assembled in the area for no other purpose than “to catch him and confiscate his paratha”.
The author is also good at evoking the terrifying shifts in mood that occur when the individual melts away and the mob takes over, and how, at such times, trying to work out “what really happened” becomes an exercise in pointlessness. In the 1984 segment an episode involving Kartar Singh, a middle-aged Sikh attempting to get away from an incensed crowd, grows in the telling until one version has it that he lobbed a bomb at a group of people. A little later his wife and son don’t know whom to trust, the unfamiliar tea-seller who has come to their house with news of danger, or the trusted acquaintance who is knocking hard on the door. People don’t even know their own minds: a man refers to the deceased prime minister as a whore and then, just a few moments later, as “our mother”, depending on convenience.
The plot has many strands but the central one concerns Gopal’s discovery of a large sum of money, his storing it away in steel trunks at the back of a shop but then finding himself unable to access it for years. This story, which winds through the book’s many other narratives, soon becomes symbolic of a certain type of fatalism commonly found in India: quiet acceptance, seeking reassurance in the idea that “this must be how God wants it”, that one must allow things to happen at their own pace (and so what if it isn’t in this lifetime, there are so many more to follow).
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way it transpires that this is what the book expects of its reader too; page after page, the same set of characters continue going through the motions, and tedium quickly sets in. A point came when I forgot about the story and simply started counting the number of paragraphs/chapter subsections that began with sentences such as “Gauhar dreams.” Or “Inderlal Jha stands, hands behind his back.” Or “Gopal raises the lid of his box.” “Ibrahim lugs a sack up the stairs.” “The Naari Niketan building sits at the far side of G B Road.” The alarming thing is, if you skip a couple of paragraphs you’ll usually find that not much progress has occurred. Gauhar is still dreaming, the box lid is still raised, the building is still sitting about, and the plot has hardly moved at all. Even a rookie sub-editor would be able to identify the chunks that could be excised with hardly any damage done (unless this narrative style is meant to be an elaborate homage to Waiting for Godot). A story about static lives doesn’t have to be static itself. Nor does it help that the writing is stilted in places – some of the conversations seem like literal translations of what these characters would be saying to each other in Hindi, which may be good for authenticity but doesn’t do much for literary value.
I’m not sure what kind of reader The Peacock Throne was aimed at. At times it reads like a novelistic introduction to modern Indian history meant for the western reader (or perhaps for young NRIs) – but the setting is so specific, the story so localised, and there’s so much attention to detail in describing the nooks and crannies of Chandni Chowk, complete with shop names and histories: surely this comfortable familiarity would alienate a reader who didn’t know much about the area (or about Delhi).
The particular can of course be used to illustrate the universal – it’s done all the time in good fiction – but The Peacock Throne doesn’t quite manage this. Only very rarely do its characters come alive in such a way that they can be seen as representative of a certain type of people or section of society, and the good bits don’t provide enough of a payoff for the time invested by the reader.
P.S. On Saraf’s website, there’s a link to an article about The Peacock Throne, in which he describes Gopal as being “a worn-out version of R K Laxman’s common man. He thrashes wide-eyed through opaque concepts such as liberalism, secularism, fundamentalism, communalism and casteism, saying little, understanding less, serving the ends of men more calculating than he while making not the slightest difference… no man better represents the soul of modern India than a bumbling, half-blind tea-seller with a heart of gold, trying to snatch everything that comes his way.” (Read the full thing here.)
And here’s a Chandni Chowk website.