Open City

Open City

Vasudha Dalmia explores the relationship between the city and the development of the modern Hindi novel, but with mixed results.

Fiction as History- The Novel and the City in Modern North India, Vasudha Dalmia, Permanent Black, indian express books review
Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach, on the Partition and its aftermath, moves between Delhi (above) and Lahore. Tashi Tobgyal

Book- Fiction as History- The Novel and the City in Modern North India 
Author- Vasudha Dalmia
Publication- Permanent Black
Pages- 428
Price- 750

Two decades ago, Vasudha Dalmia, who has had a long association with the University of California, Berkeley, published a monumental and painstakingly detailed study of the 19th century Hindi writer Bharatendu Harischandra in his native milieu of Varanasi. Her endeavour was to establish the incomparable part played by Bharatendu in, to evoke the title of her book, The Nationalisation of Hindu Traditions.

The Hindi literary critic, Ram Vilas Sharma, spoke of the “great literary awakening ushered in under Bharatendu’s leadership”, likening his contributions, which came in the wake of the Rebellion of 1857, “as the second storey of the edifice of renascent Hindi.” The subsequent discussions in nationalist circles on the status of Hindi and the possibilities of enshrining it as the country’s principal mother tongue would have been inconceivable, as Dalmia’s study suggests, without the defining influence of Bharatendu as the shaper both of modern Hindi and a ‘Hindu’ sensibility.

Dalmia’s Fiction as History may be seen as an extension of her previous book, except that the canvas is in many respects larger, extending well beyond Varanasi to the ‘metropolitan’ centres of north Indian society and taking up the work of seven novelists who, in various distinct ways, contributed to the efflorescence of Hindi literature. The design of her book is best captured in Dalmia’s discussion of the criteria that were critical in the selection of the novels, published between 1882 and 1961. It is the urban location of these novels to which she points, arguing that in doing so she is going “against the grain, since the tradition has been known largely for the great peasant novels of the vast agricultural countryside which made up most of the North”.

As something more than an aside, it may be remarked that in Indian literature as in films, many of the great works about rural India have been produced by artists who were preeminently of the city — one thinks of Premchand as much as Satyajit Ray. The “novel’s depiction of the political climate of the era” was decisive for Dalmia, even if inadvertent: “nationalism is all-pervasive”. Thirdly, Dalmia has chosen to focus on novels revolving around young people, or the university campus — the notion of ‘Young India’ was very much in the air, especially in the early phase of nationalism.

The greater portion of Dalmia’s present study, then, is taken up by a reasonably detailed description and reading of eight novels. Lala Shrinivasdas’s Pariksha Guru (The Tutelage of Trial, 1882) is set in post-Mughal India. Premchand’s Sevasadan (The House of Service, 1918) features a Varanasi courtesan, and his later Karmabhumi (Field of Action, 1932), while also set in Varanasi, explores the relationship of the two protagonists, husband and wife, to each other and to nationalist agitations. Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach (False Truth, 1958-60), a novel of the Partition and its aftermath, moves between Lahore and Delhi.

Her second set of four novels takes us to the period around and after Independence, opening up to works “exploring new horizons of discourse”. Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata (The God of Vice, 1949) is set in Allahabad’s Civil Lines area, while Agyaya’s Nadi ke Dvip (Islands in the Stream, 1948) calls to mind Delhi, Lucknow, and Kumaon. While a haveli in Agra’s old city is the setting for Rajendra Yadav’s Sara Akash (The Entire City, 1951), it is the residential areas and the resettlement colonies of New Delhi that furnish the backdrop to Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamre (Dark Closed Rooms, 1961).

Dalmia is not unaware of what might be described as the most obvious limitation of her book. A “fair amount of space”, she admits, is given over “to the narratives themselves, since they are largely unknown to English readers”. The descriptive mode appears to preponderate throughout: when the novel in question is a huge, sprawling work of something like 1,000 pages, as is the case with Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach, the reader is left adrift in a sea of characters and a number of sub-plots. There are large chunks of this chapter, indeed the book as a whole, where the city, the ostensible subject of Dalmia’s inquiry, virtually disappears.

This is not to say that her descriptions are without interest, or that she is unable to sustain the reader’s attention. Nor, in pointing to this shortcoming, is one necessarily invoking a positivist conception of the city as merely an urban space. To speak of the city is to think, inter alia, of a space where anonymity is possible, where one might possibly escape one’s past and one’s caste, and where the ordinary constraints of identity do not overwhelm.

The larger question at stake in this inquiry pertains to the particular relationship between the city and the development and texture of the novel. The subject receives some treatment in the opening chapter, on ‘North Indian Cities and the Hindi Novel’, but, here again, the author seems excessively preoccupied with biographical details about the novelists under consideration, and we hear more about the architectural layout of this or that city rather than about, if I may borrow the metaphor of Rome from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the id, the ego, and the superego of the city.


There is a massive literature on the novel as a particularly urban form of literature, as a love letter, even at its most depressing, to the city. Dalmia’s book gives us insights into Hindi literature during the nationalist period but not much into the sensibility, contours, and emotional architecture of the city. We have also frequently heard elsewhere of ‘fiction as history’, but I suspect that ‘history as fiction’ might yield a more arresting narrative of modern India.