Long before I moved to Delhi in 2004 to study for my undergraduation, I knew the city so well that I could even smell it. I knew the names of lanes that, perhaps, even people living in Delhi didn’t know. I knew about abandoned Mughal-era gardens, the Partition refugees who lost daughters, sons and wives to unruly mobs, the different kinds of kebabs sold in Chandni Chowk, the tall scary men who hung around Sarai Kale Khan, and the three-wheelers that took the students and professors living in Shakti Nagar, Nagia Park, to the Faculty of Arts in North Campus. I didn’t know about the Vivekananda statue there, though, where I would later spend hours gossiping and debating with friends from other colleges, scholars from other countries and bohemian boyfriends of friends, who rebelled by falling in love with men their families didn’t approve of.
I was so familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of Delhi because I had grown up reading Mamoni Raisom Goswami’s novels, and more specifically, Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Pristha (The Pages Stained with Blood, 2001). The novel appeared in serialised form in Assamese in the monthly magazine Goriyoshi. A high-school student, I would wait eagerly for each chapter, and, sometimes, this led to fights with my mother since she also waited to read the new chapter before everyone else.
In short, the novel is about the life of a young woman who teaches at Delhi University. She is not married, but has a live-in companion who appears only on certain occasions. Their relationship is never clearly stated. She lives in Roshanara Bagh in Shakti Nagar. Another colleague of hers lives in an apartment nearby. But unlike her colleague, the first-person narrator is incredibly curious about her surroundings. She is supremely observant, always carries notebooks with her, and, from her musings, the reader can infer that she is writing a book about Delhi. It is the pages of these notebooks, smeared with dust and blood, that would come to haunt her in the late Nineties. The opening lines of the novel are suggestive: “I was witness to some of the most horrific events of the city of Delhi. Some of those horrific incidents took place right in front of my eyes.” (My translation).
Like most other novels by Goswami, this book takes a lot of interest in oral and official history. It is populated with numerous characters who become the basis of equally numerous sub-plots and back stories. But Goswami has the rare talent of describing every character with such precision that even if they make an appearance in a single chapter, it is impossible to forget them. This precision is stronger when she describes places: the smell of food in the lanes of Chandni Chowk, the odour of cheap moonshine or whiskey on a rainy night from her character Santosh Singh, and the smell of raddiwala Balbir Singh’s books make a permanent mark on the mind. Once you encounter these places, people and smells, you can’t forget them, even though you haven’t visited the places.
Another appeal of the novel is that the characters seem to jump out of the pages. Santosh Singh, the three-wheeler driver who showed the protagonist around Delhi and dropped her every day to the university, is one of the most memorable characters in Assamese literature. He desired the protagonist but could never tell her. On certain occasions, even the protagonist wondered if she would be able to have sex with him but couldn’t express her feelings even to herself in clear terms. This confusion led not only to sexual tension, but also drama. It was clear from the beginning that Singh would give his life for her, and, that, perhaps, there is no future to this tense friendship with sexual pulls.
It is difficult to show how real Goswami’s characters are with just a literary analysis. One day, while I was an undergrad student, I was travelling with Assamese novelist Ratnottama Das, who now works for Delhi University, in the same department Goswami was a professor for more than 30 years. We were travelling in a three-wheeler. The road was horribly crowded and the driver navigated his way through the snarl with astonishing skill. There is a similar incident in the novel where Singh drives the narrator, “like an expert fighter making his way through enemy soldiers.” Suddenly, I quipped to my friend, “He is driving just like Santosh Singh, don’t you think?” She laughed and agreed. To people in Assam, you don’t have to explain who Santosh Singh is. Everyone wants to have a Santosh Singh in their life: generous, powerful, protective.
Goswami’s Delhi is beautiful and evocative, full of legends, and oral history, such as the story of the competition between two gold merchants in Chandni Chowk that raised the price of two dried-up unsold cucumbers to one thousand rupees, embarrassing the defeated merchant so much that he committed suicide. But this Delhi is clearly unsafe as well. At night, the narrator wants to sleep on the khatia in her balcony but her neighbour and colleague, Binodini, rebukes her for being a romantic. One night, she is woken up from her sleep due to a piercing commotion and finds a pool of blood in front of her house: the group of homeless children and adults who slept on the road in front of her has been crushed by a large, speeding truck.
But the novel is preparing us for something even more sinister ahead. In Chapter XIV, she anticipates the Sikh pogrom in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, “Fourth June 1984, the Indian army has entered the Golden Temple. We had been getting news about gunfights since morning; I was receiving the news of a sad and painful war…Delhi’s skies were gloomy that day. The red sun occasionally took a sneak peek at us through the clouds that wore the colour of graveyard ashes.” In the entire novel, as a single woman, she never feels safe. Singh is attracted to her, he respects her wish, but the powerful men of Delhi, such as the character Brigadiar Sahab, are much more forceful in making demands of her.
From the homeless people sleeping on the roads of Shakti Nagar to the posh bungalows of Chhattarpur, where the Brigadier takes her, and, in the riots in between, Goswami’s Delhi is an unsafe, exciting, beautiful, fascinating city. The images of Goswami’s Delhi are invigorating in that it inspired generations of Assamese students fleeing the insurgency back home to choose Delhi as a place for their academic endeavours. In 2004, perhaps, that is why the first thing I did when I found myself well settled in my hostel room was to take a rickshaw to Shakti Nagar. I wanted to walk around in Nagia Park, to step into Roshanara Bagh, visit Guru Hanuman Akhara where the protagonist of this novel used to drink iced milk.
That trip was disappointing. There was nothing fascinating about these places, and, in August, the weather was still unbearably hot. I would come to love those places years later, after graduating from Delhi University, after leaving Delhi, after freezing for three years in Minnesota, after returning to Delhi again to work, when I would roam around those lanes with a person I fell in love with, who I am still with. Today, I realise my trip in 2004 was disappointing because I wasn’t in love then. Goswami was at least in love — perhaps, with the city, her companion, or, perhaps, with Santosh Singh?
Aruni Kashyap is the author, most recently, of His Father’s Disease and Other Stories. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The City in My Heart I Bore’