Sunday, June 20, 2010

Style in "Twilight in Delhi" by Ahmed Ali

Symmetry and universality in the plot

Twilight in Delhi provides a real and accurate portrait of the static and decaying tradition of culture of Delhi while the British arranged the coronation Durbar of 1911 and draw up plans for new imperial city, new Delhi, the novel has planned at reveal interconnecting levels and has been praised for its lucid style, its use of symbolism and the manner in which it merges the life of its main protagonist, Mir Nihal with that of the family. Much attention has also been parcel to this feeling that it had universal appeal because it focuses on the rhythms life birth marriage deaths, which are intrinsic to every culture.

Use of metaphor:
Twilight in Delhi maces extensive use of metaphor, it begins with the description of the city,
 “Night envelops the city, covering it like a blanket_ in the dim straight roofs and wrapped in a rustle slumber breathing heavily as the heat become apprentice or shoots through the body like pain. In the by came on the road men sleep on bare bed, half naked tired of for the sore days capture A few still walk on the other wise deserted roads, hand in hand, talking and some have jasmine garlands in their herds, the smell from the flower escapes scents a from yards of air around by them and alias smothered by the heat dogs so about sniffing the gutter in search of offal.”

The linguistic deviation does, it may be concluded, present the ethos of the culture the novel purports to portray. If this is the idiom which African and Indian ( I mean sub_ continental here ) writers want to evolve – something not as bizarre as the language of Amos Tutola nor as British as the idiom of V.S. Naipaul—Ahmed Ali has given them a model of what may be achieved.

Ethos of Indian Muslims
Another way in which the ethos of Indian Muslims has been conveyed is by making the characters quote poetry. As Coppola points out:

“It is a custom of long standing among Urdu _ speakers to quote lines of poetry copiously, appropriately, and energetically in order to emphasize, to make a point in conversation, or to add elegance to speech and writing.”

Use of couplet:

Thus it would be naïve to look for existential despair in Asgher’s reply to his friend Bari’s question as to where he has been. He replies by quoting someone else’s couplet which does not represent his real feelings but is merely an elegant way of replying to any query:
Life has become a burden, the time is ripe for death.
The space of existence has shrunk into a narrow cell (P.28)
The couplet is merely used for ornamentation and factitious dramatization of commonplace disappointment in love. The function of poetry was mostly rhetorical in Urdu speaking culture and that is how been used by the characters. The couplets are. Therefore, clichés which substitute a hackneyed formula for an intellectual response to a given experience. But of course, the couplets prefacing chapters are intellectually relevant and emotionally evocative.

Most of the couplets used by narrator express the ethos of the Urdu-speaking middle class. And this class had a distinct world view. A world view which was essentially romantic in eighteen nineties . Three qualities can be discerned in this special world view: nostalgia, sublimation of sexual feelings into vague aestheticism, and world weariness. A pose of wistfulness, ennui and jadedness complement these three dominant qualities. And all these are found in most of the verses quoted. For instance:

I” m the light of no man’s eye,
The rest of no one’s heart am I.
That which can be of use to none
---Just a handful of dust am I.

These kinds of couplets the theme of regret for a dying culture directly. The self pity in the poetry is, of course, a reflection of the self pity which was a part of the Indian ethos before the partition. Ahmed Ali’s novel has been able to catch this aspect of Indian culture faithfully.

False sense of diffidence
One aspect of the male-dominated Urdu speaking culture which has not been revealed out of a false sense of modesty by most other writers, but which has been revealed by Ali, concerns the sexual emotion. As I have mentioned above, sex was suppressed or sublimated. But, mainly because women were in purdah (behind the veil), it took unusual forms. It took, for instance, the form of celebrating the beauty of boys rather than that of women in poetry. Thus the sown on the face (khat) became a conventional attribute of the beloved. One reason for doing this was that in Iran, where the ghazal had its genesis; boys did actually become the beloveds of certain poet. The other reason was that when Persian mystic poets started writing love poetry symbolizing the souls’ quest for merging with the Soul of God, the symbol they chose for the beloved was that of a beautiful youth rather than a woman. On the other hand the Indian mystics, Muslims and Hindus, represented God as the lover and the soul as the woman who desires union. As Urdu poetry followed Persian fashions the beloved was addressed by the male pronoun and had some of the physical attributes of adolescent boys (such as khat) though it was often clear otherwise that a woman was being referred to. This literary fashion, and perhaps the absence of women, led to talk between men becoming full of homosexual innuendoes. Ali, with relentless honesty, tells us about this aspect of Muslim culture.
He tells us, for example, that when Asghar lives in Bhopal as an adolescent youth, he was the beloved of men:
He had just to cast a glance and there were many who would have given their lives to do his bidding. At the least sign from him they would have done anything. Then he was the bestower of favours; there he was the loved one and not the lover. To be loved is sweet, he thought, whereas to love is full of sorrow and grief and pain (TD, 23).
We are also told that a man called ‘Huzoor Ali was devoted to him’ (p.23) and if Asghar had happened to look at him kindly even ‘one there had appeared such joy on his face’ (p. 23). When Huzoor Ali invites Asghar or dinner and Asghar ‘refused and refused until the old man was brokenhearted’ (p.24) the lover recites these lines:

Would to God that You
Might also fall in love and suffer
As I am suffering now.

This special kind of homosexuality in which the youth or boy is sought as a female surrogate by the male is also a feature of Greek, Persian and some Arab literature. To distinguish it from the adult peer-group homosexuality common in modern Western literature I have suggested elsewhere that is should be called pedophilia. It is this which was a part of Indian Muslim culture and is not hypocritically dissembled in Twilight.

At its noblest the love between man and youth is described as a mystic or sacred emotion. Kambal Shah, the mystic, tells Mir Nihal and his friends that the real cause of the downfall of the Mughal Empire ‘was that they had separated lover and beloved from each other by burying Mohammad Shah between the graves of Hazrat Mahboob Elahi and Hazrat Amir Khusro’ (TD, 146). The audience listens to this with religious emotion because the two saints mentioned are revered by all. At its most vulgar, of course, the nature of the emotion is purely sensual. In ‘Our Lane’, for instance, Munno tells Aziz:

I had a cousin. The boy was rather handsome. It was about ten years ago. I sort of fell out with him over a kiss (PH, 21).

This is said seriously but most allusions to sexual feelings of this kind are fictitious. Sometimes there is open buffoonery:

As he [an old man] crossed Asghar, his stick unwittingly touched the old man’s behind. As once he turned round and remarked:

I say, moon-bridegroom, even with an old man? ….

A eunuch who sat on the balcony just above in the hope of some stray customer, clapped loudly in a vulgar way and gave a loud guffaw (p.79).

And sometimes the humour is more refined but, in fact behind the humour there is sexual flirtation as in the following scene:

And the lovers found the opportunity of their lives. A middle aged man quoted these lines of an young man with arms open for an embrace, …

It is the day of Eid, my dear,
Ah come, let me embrace thee.
It is the custom and besides
There’s time and opportunity

What is even more remarkable is that the narrator offers no comment on these scenes. That makes Ahmed Ali one of the few Indian writers who could reveal such tabooed areas of Indian life without either falsifying reality or preaching as Muslim. However, unfortunately, Ali does offer platitudinous comments of a moralistic kind at some places and this flaw of his work must not go unnoticed.

To continue with the discussion of the quality of Ali’s realism in Twilight, it has been noted that he present the corporate life through the minor characters who help to create the illusion that one is in India, the land of the crowded houses in which something is always going on. As Niven says, the novel is full of ‘servants, beggars and craftsmen’. In fact no other novel catches the nuances of the Muslims culture in Delhi as convincingly as twilight. One can find out all about the details which make a culture come alive in Ali’s descriptions. And the descriptions are not as if they were a part of a documentary, they from an organic whole and are, therefore, artistically successful whereas those of Scented Dust were intrusions. In this respect Twilight represents an aspect of Indian culture as successfully as Chinua Achebe’s Novel Things Fall Apart represents African culture, a point made by Anniah Gowda in as article.

Realistic portrayal of culture and traditions

The novel evokes the culture of Delhi through describing customs and ceremonies minutely and – says Brander – ‘the fine wedding chapter reads like an epithalamium in which verse and prose alternate in wonderfully refreshing bridal music’. Even the beggars are described and their songs and mannerisms make them concrete presences and not allude to the superstitions of the time he does so in a manner which reveals his own beliefs. For instance, Kambal Shah, a Faqir who visits Mir Nihal, is described as follows:

He was said to be high up in the mystical order although no one knew his hidden spiritual powers, for such faqirs never reveal themselves to human beings .

The italicized line seems to suggest that the narrator shares in the belief or Mir Nihal and his friends. Since there is no indication that the author was deliberately distinguishing himself from the narrator in this instance, one may assume that Ali to believes in this. On the other hand Mir Nihal also believes that mercury can be converted into silver but here he narrator shows his own skepticism by correcting Mir Nihal credulity when he says: ‘Yet no one really did it. Still Mir Nihal believed in its truth and went on hoping against hope’ (p.128). this suggests that the narrator, and by implication the author, had shed off some of the beliefs and ways of looking at life of the Muslim gentlemen of U.P but not all: a conclusion which will help us to understands the theme of the novel.

Theme and Structure

The theme, the philosophical import of the novel, is based in Ali’s subjective response to his moribund culture and is, in the last analysis, sentimental and therefore, unsatisfactory. For the theme is the passing away of Muslims civilization in India. The narrator’s attitude towards this culture is romantic. Yet Niven calls it classical:
Despite the rhapsodic treatment of Asgher’s love for Bilqeece (Ali’s own wife is called Bilqeece), the autumnal mood at the novel’s close, the grief-stricken regrets for the Mughal past and the frequent opulence of his prose style, Ali writes less from a romantic than a classical standpoint. He recognizes the immutability of the basic elements in human life. Individual dramas come and go …Yet the denominator remains the same in every age.
Yet classicism in so far as it refers to a recognition of the permanence of he change brought about by the passing of time is perhaps the intention of the novelist. My contention is that this intention has not satisfactorily been transmuted into art. Other critics have, of course, criticized the novel. Gowda thinks Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is superior.
Ahmad Ali bengs his fatalistic drum and suggests that fate is to blame when things wrong; Achebe relegates the supernatural to the background and shows tragedy to be consequent on the interaction of social forces and human character.
And Niven comes more close to my own interpretation of the Novel when comments that Ali’s writing can be charged, therefore, with two permeating weaknesses: its tendency towards a tried vocabulary and its sorrow for the past which at time collapses into ineffective nostalgia this is the point it does not only collapse into nostalgia but the purpose of the whole novel is, therefore, sentimental and its sentimentality is traceable to the romantic world view of the Urdu speaking middle class of which Ali is a member.
As I have already shown, Ali did share the emotional attitudes of this class. And a part of this attitude was to regard the past as having been very grand merely because it was the time of the domination of this class. This falsifies reality because this Muslim grandeur was based on the exploited labour of Hindu peasants in the final analysis and, to go further into the past, in conquest and colonialism by the Muslims, the very thing for which the British are being blamed. There is no justification for such empty rhetoric as one finds towards the end of many chapters of Twilight. And it is not, as Lawrence Brander contends, the raised rhythms of biblical English every time (though Brander’s own quotation from Ali is indeed an example of appropriately used raised rhythm) it is used. Sometimes it is merely the Indian Muslims penchant for using high-sounding words:
For if it not for hope men would commit suicide by the scores, and the world would remain a barren desert in which no oasis exist. On this tortuous road of life man goes on hoping that the next turn of road will bring him in sight of the goal (TD, 128).

Several such passages mar the book. Most of the ellipses too suggest much more than is actually warranted by the situation. For this situation in itself does not evoke the response of inexpressible emotion which the ellipses seem to suggest. The author hints at a profundity through them, which is not really there. The purple passages the pseudo philosophical dictums, and the incomplete sentence, point out that the writer is relying on rhetorical devices in order to evoke pathos for a civilization to which he responds for personal reasons but which does not really deserve this response from the reader.
It is indeed a fault of the writer’s understanding of India that it should be so. And this is strange because Ali had the reputation of being an iconoclast and a progressive writer. After all in his short story Two Sides of the Picture he dose show the cruelty and moral turpitude of people like Mir Nihal. But in the novel not even Asghar challenges Mir Nihal’s way of life except in trivial ways. He dose adopt British dress but exploits women, indulges in self-pity and loves emotionality. Thus if the symbols of the cat and Babban Jan’s death signify that a cherished way of life is passion away we are not told why it was cherished at all. This way of looking at life is flawed and sentimental and Twilight is a flawed novel. It is like the golden bowl of Henry James which has a crack. And the pity is that most critics have not paid much attention to the crack.

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