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A Chandni Chowk story for young NRIs

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

As a loyal Dilli-wallah I've been waiting with eagerness for the Great Delhi Novel, a doorstop of a book that would capture the spirit of my city in the way Shantaram, Sacred Games and Maximum City captured Mumbai's. Little did I reckon with having to first contend with an aspirant for the title of Great Chandni Chowk Novel.
It must be quickly clarified that Sujit Saraf's The Peacock Throne is "great" only in the sense of Very, Very Large. There are several astonishing things about this book: 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 751 pages; second, the fact that someone with a solid day job (Saraf works as a research scientist in California) and a family found the time and 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 book by at least 50 per cent.
The Peacock Throne uses Chandni Chowk and its Hindu, Muslim and Sikh residents (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 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 came to power), it touches on such key events as the Mandal Commission riots of 1990 and the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, using the changing equations between its principal characters to illustrate the subtle social and political changes that resulted from these incidents.
This is a promising idea 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 central strand 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 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, it soon transpires that this is what the book expects of its reader too; as the same set of characters continue to go through the motions, tedium quickly sets in. Very often, you'll find that if you skip a few paragraphs ahead, not much has happened to the plot. Even a rookie sub-editor would be able to identify the chunks that could be excised with hardly any damage done. 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.
At times this 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). Of course, the particular can be used to illustrate the universal, 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. There are a few nice vignettes""Saraf is especially good at evoking the terrifying shifts in mood that occur when the individual melts away and the mob takes over""but taken as a whole, this book doesn't justify the time invested by the reader.
The Peacock Throne
Sujit Saraf
Price: Rs 590; Pages: 751

First Published: Mon, February 19 2007. 00:00 IST