M Mukundan: ‘I grew up with Delhi’

Rihan Najib | Updated on September 11, 2020

Sepia-tinted memories: The author (left) is nostalgic for a time when Delhi was still acluster of villages and had its peculiar charms   -  IMAGE COURTESY: M MUKUNDAN

The Malayalam author’s impressions of the Capital are a far cry from the visuals presented in the glossy pages of tourist brochures

* His book reflects his own experiences of witnessing the coming-of-age of Delhi as a modern metropolis

* Contemporary Delhi scares me. Its crowds, its speed, its sheer magnitude

* I wouldn’t be able to write a biography of the present city. It would end up being a satire

“As soon as you reach Delhi, you should go to Nehru’s house and meet him,” a parent tells her son, Sahadevan, who is about to embark on a journey to the Capital. “But don’t go there wearing a dhoti. Go only after you get trousers,” she suggests. This brief passage from renowned Malayalam writer M Mukundan’s latest book Delhi: A Soliloquy speaks volumes about how the city was perceived by those from other parts of the country in the 1950s and ’60s. Delhi was equated with possibilities other places could never aspire for; it was a city shaped by larger-than-life figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru, a place too modern for the humble mundu or dhoti. In the book, 20-year-old Sahadevan boards a train for Delhi from Kerala in 1959, and becomes an observer to the city’s turbulent evolution until the late ’80s. “It’s in Delhi that your life will begin,” he tells himself.

Mukundan’s journey mirrors that of Sahadevan. The author first came to Delhi in 1962 and worked as a cultural attaché in the Embassy of France for the next four decades, retiring in 2004. Currently based in Mahe, Kerala, where he was born and raised, he still visits his adoptive city of Delhi now and then. Over the phone, Mukundan (77) describes to BLink the adventure of travelling to the Capital for the first time.

Delhi: A Soliloquy / M Mukundan/ (Tr) Fathima EV, Nandakumar K / Westland/Eka / Fiction / ₹799


“At the time, the only way to get to Delhi from Kerala was the Madras Mail. After an overnight journey to Chennai, you’d have to take the Grand Trunk Express to Delhi. Since the trains back then were steam engines, one would be covered in a fine layer of soot by the time one got to Delhi,” he says. He sums up his relationship with the city thus: “I grew up with Delhi”, as opposed to growing up in the Capital. His book reflects his own experiences of witnessing the coming-of-age of Delhi as a modern metropolis.

Originally published in 2011 in Malayalam as Delhi Gadhakal, the novel has a sprawling scope, opening with the post-Independence years when the young nation was still coping with the aftermath of Partition. Detailing the effects of the wars of 1962 and 1971 as well as the Emergency of 1975-77, Mukundan brings to fore the sheer ordeal of living in a city that had seen extreme violence and was fated to endure more.

“I wanted to write this book for three reasons,” he says. “First, I wanted to chronicle the events I had lived through, the incidents that shaped the political and social life of the city. Second, I wanted to tell the story of Delhi through the community of Malayalis who lived there at the time. And third, I wanted to challenge the image of Delhi that existed in the minds of Malayalis who hadn’t ever been to the city — who had only seen Delhi through the visuals of the Republic Day parade till then.”

Mukundan’s Delhi is a far cry from the glossy pages of tourist brochures. It is harsh, unforgiving, squalid, quick to conflagration and easily scarred.

The author of acclaimed novels such as Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil (1974), translated as On the Banks of the Mayyazhi, and the 1989 book Daivathinte Vikrithikal (God’s Mischief), Mukundan has won numerous awards including the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, the highest literary honour accorded by the Kerala government, and is a household name in the state. A prolific writer, he is accustomed to writing his books in longhand. But when it came to Delhi, the first book for which he used a computer, he found himself at an impasse.

“I’d sit down in front of my laptop at 4am to write, a lingering habit from my days at the Embassy when I’d only have the early hours of the morning to myself for writing. But without the rustle of paper, or the scratch of the nib against the page, I couldn’t get any words out,” he says. So he wrote the first parts of the book by hand and completed the rest on his laptop. “I felt the book ought to be translated since this was a story that shouldn’t be limited to Malayalis,” he says, praising Fathima EV and Nandakumar K’s translation of his book into English.

Mukundan’s encyclopaedic descriptions of Delhi’s back lanes and serpentine streets is a testament to the city’s galloping pace of change. “Many of those roads don’t exist anymore, many of those places have disappeared by now. I feel nostalgic for the days when Delhi was still a cluster of villages. It had its charms,” he says. “Contemporary Delhi scares me. Its crowds, its speed, its sheer magnitude — all of it is so different from the city I first arrived in.”

For a chronicler of his times, the Delhi of today presents a bigger problem. “It just doesn’t inspire the writer,” he says with a wry laugh. “I wouldn’t be able to write a biography of the present city. It would end up being a satire.”

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

Published on September 09, 2020

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