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Narratives of Suffering and ‘Risk’: Looking Back at Ahmed Ali’s ‘Twilight in Delhi’

By Sumantra Baral

A virus is always present no matter whether human civilization exists or not. However, the presence of a virus does not create a pandemic or epidemic. It is the involvement of human beings with a virus on a massive scale that qualifies as an epidemic or pandemic. It does not matter whether the virus is natural or man-made, we are concerned with its effect on the human being. A foreign particle claims a body. The body resists with immunity and fails. The failure becomes common. Suddenly death becomes a household visitor; a friend becomes a sight of fear; a life of alienation arrives. The arrogance of individuality gradually fades away with the decreasing population in the location. The hope of normalcy remains with the curse of poverty.

In colonial India this was quite the condition of the villages during pandemics and epidemics. Living in 2020, amidst COVID-19 pandemic, not much has changed. We have progressed a lot and so has the virus. Living in isolation or quarantine, waiting to die or to receive vaccination, how can one help oneself?  Well, literature and its history can definitely serve as an antidote. Literature which deals with human emotions, responses, and activities in a fictional or historical realm to a particular condition, represents everything that is lost, achieved, and forgotten. To find oneself in a common historical situation can be mentally embalming. A little more reading can introduce logic and rationality into the territory of fatality and anxiety.

In colonial India, when village after village was ravaged by pandemics, literature never missed to record the situation of human suffering as public spectacle, how suffering became common and of everyday occurrence, how high-density population, poverty and lack of hygiene made it worse, and how the class in power took advantage of this. This is not just the picture of India. The whole world has suffered from it. Throughout the globe, we have exceptional literature on pandemics and epidemics such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Camus’s The Plague, Sarat Chandra Chattapadhyay’s Srikanta, Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s Ganadevta, to name a few, which deal with this situation in villages and small towns. The politics of pandemic literature is that it holds not the pandemic, but the people in pandemic, in focus. The pandemic appears as a moment of emergency. Literature does not begin or end with pandemic but with the fate of the protagonists. A time torn apart by disasters and catastrophes can no longer rely on the existing literary genres in India like the mythological, pastoral, lyrical. It is always the people, the common people, who suffer the most in moments of crisis. The realist mode of art appears to be a suitable narrative technique to do justice to this situation. This new form chooses common people as its focus.

Published three years before the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi is a trend setter of the progressive and realist mode of writing which became the marker of literary representation in the 1940s. One of the founders of the Progressive Writers Association, Ahmed Ali’s essay “A Progressive View of Art”, the unofficial manifesto of this movement, defines progressiveness as “a constant becoming – a continuation which never comes to an end. The moment it is labeled … it ceases to be ‘progress’ and comes to an end.” Set against the background of the newly created capital of India, Delhi, Twilight in Delhi records the impact of the 1918 Influenza, popularly known as Bombay fever, in the life of old Delhi. This pandemic claimed over 50 million lives worldwide and about 10 to 20 million lives in India. ‘Twilight’, the key word in the title of the novel, not only suggests scenic beauty but also a kind of precarity. Twilight indicates in-betweenness and liminality – the position of Delhi between two languages – English and Urdu and two empires, the Mughal and the British. Twilight serves as an anesthetic expression of the miserable life of people living in Delhi during the pandemic. Twilight, which usually hints at a transition between day and night, here posits itself between life and death, tradition and change, orthodoxy and progression. All these issues are summed up in the narrative of Ali whose novel was heaped with praise by none other than E. M. Forster in London from where it was published by Hogarth Press.

The novel touches upon many issues of the time, ranging from nationalism to progressive writing, protest against orthodoxy and fundamentalism, love, marriage, pining, death and the influenza flu. Asghar loses his wife Bilqeece to the pandemic. She had the fever. Ali’s realist details bring shivers down the spine. The description is naked and cold as are the bodies:

A new cemetery was made outside the city where people buried relations by the score. The Hindus were lucky that way. They just went to the bank of the sacred Jamuna, cremated the dead, and threw away without a shroud or cremation. They were mostly the poor. Yet in death it was immaterial whether you were naked or clothed or burnt or thrown away to be devoured by vultures and jackals. (p.169)

Ali also points out the ritualistic difficulty in dealing with the dead bodies. As for Hindus bodies are burnt, for Muslims bodies are covered in shrouds and buried in graves. In this difficult time during the pandemic, poverty has given birth to the profession of shroud-stealing: “The people had discovered new and newer ways of procuring bread” (170). It was not only the shroud-thieves but also the gravediggers and the cloth merchants or banias who took full advantage of the situation. With the number of dead bodies increasing every hour, the importance and requirement of the gravediggers exceeds the limit. They are able to make a good living and fortune out of this situation:

They raised their wages from two rupees to four and from four to eight, and even then, grumbled and complained. They did not bother to see that the grave was properly dug deep enough or not. They had so many more to dig. If someone protested, they only said:

‘Dig for yourself, then. This is the best that we can do.’

In the other part of the city, the cloth merchants increased the price of line-cloth, the primary material to make winding sheets. They exploited the sentiment of loss and mourning, death and paying the last respects, by hiking the price of those sheets. If someone protested, they said,

one should not think of expense regarding a winding-sheet. After all, this is the last time that you are going to spend on the deceased. He must have given you so much comfort in life, and may have even spent on you. You should not really grudge him a decent burial…But if you cannot afford, well, then buy a cheaper winding-sheet…

But, of course, the cheaper shroud would be so thin that one could see the naked body through it; and the person would starve, but spend a little more to give his dear one a decent shroud…

One can relate this politics of money-making behind the shroud to the one seen in Munshi Premchand’s short story “The Shroud”, as the Ghassals started charging more. Ali shows how religion is turned into a profit-making enterprise in desperate times:

They charged a high sum for having performed this virtuous deed, and departed for the next, from morning till night, from sunset till dawn, stroking their pious beards, feeling their deep purses that were filled with silver and gold, muttered the name of God, and massaged their bellies with satisfied yet greedy hands…

This particular passage echoes the anti-fundamentalist ethos of the magazine Angarray (Embers) for which it was banned under IPA 295A. Catastrophe reduces religion to greed and need. Ali’s rational and scientific temperament, which was one of the components he emphasized repeatedly in the progressive writing manifesto, unveils the hypocrisy of religion and the futility of orthodoxy.

What the novel does miss in depicting the epidemic is the medical intervention. There is hardly any description dealing with any prophylactic measures taken either by the Government, locals or even in Ashgar’s household when Bilqueece dies. Though the doctor tried his best to save her, it was not enough. As bacteriology was still young, people had no other choice but to rely on their immune system. Every time a new pathogen appears in the environment, it brings in a great threat to the body’s immunity. People’s attention turns towards God in these moments of crisis, as people conduct prayers and azaans. The situation is very similar to the worshipping of Manasa, Olabibi, Bonobibi, Sitala in Bengal at the time of cholera or small-pox epidemics. The Bible also refers to plague as the punishment of God.

More recently, historians of medicine and public health have foregrounded three main issues: epidemics and pandemics as agents of change; epidemics as a mirror of social processes; and epidemics as ways of illustrating changing medical theories and practices. In this context, it is important to ask: how did people react to such epidemics? In other words, it seeks to explore the interface between racism, imperialism, capitalism, poverty, and disease (Nancy Gallagher, Medicine and Power in Tunisia). By taking into account this medico-historical framework, the novel addresses the element of change and how people react to such change. What is interesting about this novel is that whereas it is always the pandemic that introduces the change, here pandemic just adds another part in that change. Positing pandemic in an already changing society and time delineates the novelist’s intention to question imperialism in bringing or taking responsibilities for the change. While imperial medicine or vaccine is not mentioned as it was still thirty years away, daktari medicine or household totka, which is very popular in the villages and small towns in India and distinctly different from western medicine, is also missing from the narrative. In a country like India which revolves around myths and morality, illness and disease act as metaphors of punishment for a misconduct or the result of karma. Illness therefore becomes associated with sin and worshipping a deity becomes important.

The invasion of the territory of Delhi by the English becomes analogous with the influenza virus, a foreign pathogen claiming the native colonial body. The virus appears to be an excess, an unwanted excess. What this residual corporeal other does to the body, imperialism does it to India, especially Delhi. Twilight becomes therefore the territory between life and death. We hardly come across writers like Ali who use a historical metaphor to speak of the political in such a nuanced way. One is reminded of the poet Sukanta Bhattacharya who compared the moon with scorched bread in his poem ‘He Mahajibana’ (O Great Life):

For the realm of Hunger, the world is prosaic:
The Full Moon appears to be a scorched bread. (Translated by Osman Gani)

The pandemic acts as a reminder of our anthropocentric pride. It is a condition that is a stark and grim mirroring of our own helplessness, the seed of which is planted by us. Disease, illness, death grow like shadows and when they seize control of the body the sick body is completely helpless. Every death count contests the limit of human knowledge, experience, and the futility of modernity. Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist and social scientist, identifies ‘risk’ as a major characteristic of our time when the world has moved towards second modernity (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992). It is important to read pandemics and epidemics in literature and history and writings on catastrophe not just as narratives of pain and suffering, victory and overcoming the odds but as narratives of ‘risk’ (Global Warming, Nuclear War, etc.) that quietly lurk underneath the narratives. In a way, we are caught in a dangerous twilight.

Sumantra Baral is currently a Postgraduate student at the Department of English, Amity University, Kolkata. He has presented papers in various national and international conferences. His poems have frequently appeared at the University of Edinburgh Journal.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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