A New Look at New Delhi
A Bad Character
I was born in New Delhi in the 1980s and have lived there off and on through the years. I have a complicated relationship with the city. These days, when I am in India, I choose to spend more and more time in Bombay, a city I find much easier to love. Yet I am drawn to Delhi, perhaps because of the difficulty of loving it—both in my reading and my writing. Deepti Kapoor, who, according to her brief author bio, lives in Goa, clearly feels similarly. Delhi is dusty and hectic and exhausting. It is the seat of India’s political power and the roads in the parts of town that welcome foreign dignitaries are wide and covered with trees, but the underbelly permeates everything.
Growing up as a female in Delhi informs your every move in a way few other cities do. Delhi violates you, eyes seek you out, hands reach for you, and you learn early on that your body is a weapon that can be easily used against you. It is a strange, simultaneous awareness and loss of power. Understanding and capturing young female life in Delhi is difficult but Kapoor tackles it beautifully.
A Bad Character tells the story of a young woman, all but orphaned, living in a middle-class neighborhood with a caretaker of sorts and going to college in Delhi and looking for more, in every sense of the word.
A lot of the action in this book takes place in cars. Cars are a woman’s best friend in Delhi—they allow you to be out in the city, to mingle, to move, to be free while also being somewhat protected. After the violent gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi just over two years ago, the idea of a car as a symbol of freedom and escape takes on even more significance. But even in the car, you always have to be moving. Delhi is not a city for stillness.
Sometimes I drive to the Grand Trunk Road and think about the mountains beyond. Sometimes I drive towards the airport to see the planes taking off. Sometimes I park near Kamla Nagar or go down among the old colonial bungalows of Civil Lines. But parking does attract attention. It has its own problems. What is she doing there? What does she want? Is she a whore? Is she waiting for a man? At traffic lights, in the middle of a jam. Stuck behind cages of chickens stacked in the backs of tempos, waiting to be killed. They do notice me, these eyes, discovering I’m all alone in this city of meat and men.
And filling gas at the station the attendant strokes my hand when I hold money out to pay. But still I drive around the city tempting fate, fingering the walls of the cell for the point at which it will break.
And so Kapoor takes us through the streets of Delhi in a car with this young woman and, with her, we meet the charming older man who sweeps her off her feet and into his bedroom with plenty of alcohol and cocaine and sex along the way. We’ve met both of these characters before, in literature and in film—the young, inexperienced woman; the mysterious, older man, New York City returned, helping her find her vices. The two of them are not what make this a strong novel. After all, we learn in the very first line that the man is going to end up dead, “[h]is body left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east.”What makes this novel so gripping is the character of Delhi.
I know it’s cliché to hear about a city parading about as a character in a novel but indulge this cliché because Kapoor makes Delhi come alive in a way that I haven’t often seen. This is not a book written to cater to tourists through fiction—it is not about the exotic alleys of Old Delhi (although they do make a brief appearance) or the trendy cobblestoned paths of Khan Market. This is not a book that will tell you about how the little beggar children have bright smiles despite their poverty. There are no prostitutes awaiting redemption. This is a book about Delhi as a gritty, cold, unkind, and often ugly city in which you must fight for yourself. It is about a Delhi that is expanding faster than the city itself can keep up with, construction radiating rapidly out of the center of town.
Millions of lives, hearts, lungs, arms flailing and stabbing, begging, beating, pleading, praying, pushing gums against teeth, teeth against flesh, tongues lolling, bodies rubbing in the dark, drunk, fraying, frayed hems on clothing, loose stitches, goats, chickens, one great cry, the scent of it, the red dust and diesel in my nostrils and my mouth.
The book hurtles toward the end, an escalation that feels unearned at times. Things fall apart, the man is not who she thought he was (they never are), and the young woman is left trying to sweep up parts of her life. Kapoor seems to be trying to satisfy an urge to give us a more traditional narrative and is not fully successful but that does not take away from the beauty of the book. This is the story of Delhi; the young woman is simply our conduit.
I am tempted to fill this review with quotes because nearly every sentence in this book is one to linger over. Kapoor’s language trembles between poetry and prose. I will allow you to discover the pleasure yourself. But I will leave you with this:
Crepuscular. Delhi creeps as we go, the sun sinks behind the earth once more, bathes in the rotten Yamuna, drowns there. The temples erupt, the mosques, the droning of men’s voices, the keening of every faith, the desperate plea for the sun to rise again, the bats and the birds, the great tambourine shake, a bedsheet shook over the balcony to the street. And the beasts of the Ridge are going wild, making a noise of pylons and wires, a cassette being rewound, unfurling tape against magnet, the madness of the dying sun, inducing ritual panic as old as the earth.
In a city such as this you still know the sun. You know the moment it appears, you hear the bells ringing madly in praise, hear the chanting and the call to prayer leaping into the sky, the wild dogs barking in the alleyways, rising from their beds of construction sand and dirt.
There it is. Kapoor at her strongest, Delhi breathing and alive. We are along for one of her many drives through the city. No action is taking place, the plot does not need this, but this does not need a plot.