One of the most impressive things about a city such as Delhi or Mumbai is the number of residents of the city who are also devoted students of the city, proponents of its diverse pleasures, alive both to its plain and obscured histories and to the currents and forces shaping its present-day flux. If these cities seem to us to hum with an awesome power, it is partly because we hold them in an awe that comes from a wide knowledge of what is happening in them, of all the stories they house. As much though that we feel we know them intimately, there is always one more side to the story of which we are not aware, one more door to be opened. Sometimes it is our experiences of homes, streets and neighbourhoods that open up our minds and widen our sympathies, and sometimes it is books. Trickster City, a collection of narratives of Delhi written by people on its margins and ordinarily without a voice, is just such a book. Here are stories of the lives, dreams and dilemmas of migrants, daily-wage workers, the unemployed and the dispossessed, told in their own voices.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the book is the very fact that it is a book. Many of the writers in this anthology, all in their teens and 20s, do not come from backgrounds that link up to literary production. Most do not have more than a school education. One writer used to work in a slaughterhouse, another is a courier boy, a third delivers fast food, a fourth works as a teacher in a learning centre. Their work comes out of initiatives led by two Delhi-based organizations—Ankur: Society for Alternatives in Education, and Sarai-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)—to provide an outlet for their creative energies. The description of their realities in Hindi, motivated by a documentary impulse but often taking the form of fiction, has been sensitively translated into English by Shveta Sarda. Here are observers of realities who have, for the most part in our literature, only been observed from without, often in ways that distort or falsify their experience.
Demographics: The book captures the bustle and drama of Old Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Many of the writers grew up in what are sometimes called resettlement colonies and some of the most powerful narratives are about the experience of demolition, eviction and resettlement. Lakhmi Chand Kohli, a resident of Dakshinpuri, writes of a settlement being brought down by a demolition agency, the falling walls exposing the realities of what had hitherto been places of sanctuary and privacy. “The door of a house, removed from its wall, lay on one side,” writes Kohli. “There was a lock on the door.” This image of a door securely locked yet uprooted from its very moorings serves as a powerful metaphor for the trauma of lives built precariously, piece by piece, and then suddenly unhoused. Jaanu Nagar writes of how, in the aftermath of demolition, every sound takes on a sinister aspect. “If even a leaf falls from a peepul tree, it seems as if it is the sound of advancing footsteps.”
Trickster City: Penguin/Viking, 324 pages, Rs499.
What happens when one has only a day, or a few hours, to pack one’s worldly possessions and leave? “I think there are two kinds of objects in a home— those that fulfil our needs and those that express our desires,” writes the perceptive Neelofar, 25. In the panic and confusion of emptying a house, people only take away the first category of objects and “leave behind their desires”. In a way, then, they are doubly impoverished. The writers show a breadth of vision that sometimes takes in the compulsions of those who oppress them.
Usually no more than three or four pages long, the many narratives of Trickster City show a rudimentary but pleasing aesthetic. It is clear that the writers take pleasure in the work of writing, even derive strength from it. Many stories are slice-of-life compositions in which the pleasure is not in the narrative arc but in the details. A slaughterhouse worker explains that “the way to skin a chicken is very specific”, and shows how, while an attendant in a phone booth goes over the kinds of people seen in his shop, explaining how they breathe life into the space with the urgency of their conversations. This is a welcome addition to the literature of Delhi and indeed to that of Indian urban experience in general.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
Write to email@example.com