Originally published in 1977, Nayantara Sahgal’s A Situation in New Delhi was re-printed by Penguin India in 2008, something that should give you an idea of the importance of Sahgal to the corpus of twentieth-century Indian writing in English. And she really was writing at a time when Indian writing in English was more of a curiosity, an anomaly, an anachronism than it is today.
A Situation in New Delhi revolves around the lives of three main characters: Devi, her son Rishad, and Michael Calvert. But the real protagonist, already dead by the time the novel opens, is Shivraj, Devi’s brother, Rishad’s uncle and a close friend of Michael’s. Though someone more knowledgeable about Indian politics may be able to correct me, I think Shivraj was modelled on Nehru. An idealistic leader who has ruled India for several years, his death leaves a gaping hole in both Indian politics, and the lives of the individual characters. The order and hope that he represents rapidly diminishes.
I have read some of Sahgal’s other books, and I must admit that I have trouble telling them apart, when the dust has settled and I look back on them. They are different, of course, with different characters and settings (this one in New Delhi, another in Chandigarh…), but they mostly revolve around the intimacies and personalities of politics in the couple of decades after Indian independence. This is not so much of a criticism, or an obstacle, as it may sound. Her books are gripping (on the verge of being called thrillers, but not quite), with unexpected denouments.
What I particularly liked about A Situation in New Delhi was Sahgal’s ability to recreate the atmosphere (or what I imagine must have been the atmosphere) amongst the upper-class, political elite in India in the 1970s. This book was written around the time of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, after the hope of the immediate post-independence years had been shattered. Sahgal is, in fact, a member of the greater Nehru family, but is well known as one of her cousin Indira’s strongest critics.
A passage that particularly resonated with me, especially after debates we’ve had this week at work about some “western” scholars’ continued denial of coevalness in studies of India, follows. It also demonstrates Sahgal’s quiet, pondering, sometimes feverish style:
“this is a staggeringly old country. It makes my head spin to think how old it is. Older than the rocks. Old and settled and structured when Britons were painting their bodies blue. Already old when their epics and ancient books before the epics were written. That way of life and thinking still exists, and not only in the village. It’s there in the factory and the bazaar. It’s there if you scratch the surface of anyone who calls himself a modern Indian. It’s a colossal storehouse, some of it evil and repellent, and some of it as fine as the world has produced and very relevant to modern times, bombs and all.” (page 122)
Though I’m not sure that Sahgal has published any novels for a while, I cannot help but wonder what a novel on the Indian political scene of the early twenty-first century would look like. I’m sure she could sketch a lot of insightful parodies.