Sultan of Delhi review: Nowhere close to being the Indian Godfather, but the book has its merits

Partition was a time when narratives cut across time, age, class, caste and most importantly, communities. It was also a time that militarised minds and generations, the repercussions from which are still winding to a close. On the surface of it, enough has been borrowed from the partition in a tragic sense. From Bhishm Sahni to Yashpal to Saadat Hasan Manto, not to forget Salman Rushdie, the greatest and the most controversial has probably already been written in one way or the other. But there haven’t been enough attempts to squeeze a pop, mainstream book out of the embers of partition. Arnab Ray’s Sultan of Delhi: Ascension  is an attempt not to mime that void into something material, but siphon the ruinous remains of a story that originates perchance out of partition. And it only proves one thing, more than anything else, that great stories can be forged amidst great tragedies, dare anyone try. That point, however, is the highest the book achieves.

 Sultan of Delhi review: Nowhere close to being the Indian Godfather, but the book has its merits

Sultan of Delhi: Ascension by Arnab Ray

The book follows the story of Arjun Bhatia, a slim, weak boy, born on the other side of the border. The partition is upon us, and it is by sheer luck that Bhatia escapes death, having been helped on his way to a train along with his father. His family, however, fails to make it. The Bhatia duo land in Delhi, the city not yet of djinns but of din, both political and militant in nature. There is a great collective rush to not only survive, but also seize an opportunity as it presents itself in the form a city deserted by its previous entrepreneurial rulers. Arjun, contrary to his earlier years, is charged with passion to outlive, rather outshine the scars of partition; scars that have reduced his father to a vegetable of enthusiasm and life. Arjun, high on a self-realising journey, scales the heights so obviously out of his reach and goes where the father dare not – into the recesses of crime. He starts with the arms business, with his friend Bangali.

As with any other noir narrative, there are backstabbings and betrayals galore. Egos clash, so do minor and major empires. Arjun fights friends, and newfound enemies. And eventually, one way or the other comes out on top. There is a good case of love, forbidden yet exotic, tenuous yet fulfilling to throw in for good measure. There are gun-toting altercations, fist-fights, gory murders and everything you can expect from a book set in the underworld going up. Going up, because there are enough political, historical slingshots that crisply underline the events of the book with an importance that is difficult to hold on to when murder and violence are your safety net. There is the formation of Bangladesh, and also the emergency, all to be looped in with the CIA, technology narrative of the 90s.

The book's strength is its pace, its unfocused approach at storytelling, and its compartmentalising of the narrative technique rather than layering. Add to that the chief protagonist Arjun, a character admirably carved, but not labelled as being one or the other. While Arjun’s forthrightness is difficult to absorb at all times, it is his humanity that is felt, and not evoked in the written word, the unsaid that is particularly striking. That said, there a number of problems with the book. While it travels in between timelines, and even generations, it loses anchor, by the end unravelling into a diary entry written in the third person, waking every ten years to write something.

The jump in timelines, though carefully attached to political events to arrest attention, more than anything else, is difficult to follow, and most importantly take an immediate interest in. At times the book feels like a highlights reel of the Godfather trilogy – something it is clearly, if not directly, inspired by. The other problem with the book is the language. Consider the following pair of lines:

State MLAs scratching their balls and then dipping their chapatti into daal with the same hand

And I am going to be damned if I let some madarchod with nothing but a big name...

It is impossible to imagine people in the same book, the same age, at times, even the same person to talk in this way. Ray seems to want to set the book in the desi while write with a distinctly English sensibility. The dialogue though acceptable in content, is decidedly odd in its delivery. There a number of instances when conversations subtend to absurdist almost comical angles. And because masculinity is more of a necessity, its invocation, at least in the language is a comical misstep. It just doesn’t add up. Perhaps, it is a problem not only faced by Ray, but by a number of Indian authors writing in English. The near assimilation of earth-shifting events, conglomerated into one book, doesn’t help either. The tenacity of the word, and the occasion it addresses never lightens, and thus only highlights its own failures. Also missing is Delhi, the city itself.

On the whole, taken as a bit of pulp and pop, the book does fine on a number of lines. It engages, it holds on to its characters, with a memorable anchoring life story. The problem, it seems is that the book wants to be a film so bad, it forgets it is a book. The Indian Godfather it definitely isn’t. But for its smart plot points, its quoting of history to its advantage and its piquant macro-narratives, it is definitely readable.

Updated Date: Dec 24, 2016 10:27:52 IST