The Glass House: A portrait of power-hungry Delhi in Chanchal Sanyal's debut novel
Sanyal provides a look into how power has seeped into the very being of Delhi and Gurgaon, the backdrop for his book The Glass House
Editor's note: Delhi has captured the imagination of writers and poets for many centuries, often going beyond being just the backdrop for literature. It is a character in itself, complete with its idiosyncrasies. Recently, as a result of haphazard development, growing crime rates and brazen displays of power, Gurgaon too has emerged as a city with a personality of its own.
In his debut novel The Glass House, Chanchal Sanyal situates his yuppie protagonists – college professor MB and his designer wife Roshni – in a power-driven version of Delhi and Gurgaon, and more specifically, the murky world of real estate. A suffering marriage, a canny landlord and a builder's complex that may not see the light of day are all part of this narrative, which talks about the pursuit of urban happiness and the perils that it comes with.
In this piece, Sanyal paints a vivid portrait of the cities that make up Delhi NCR.
It is 46 degrees centigrade outside. Jackhammer heat has pounded everything into a stunned quiet. Even mad dogs are not venturing out while the Englishmen have left a long time ago. Flash-fried and sun-scorched, the brown and shriveled leaves of the trees have given up any pretence of offering shade. Merciless and unrelenting, the sun beats down on everything and the brightness of the afternoon glare lights up a dim corner of my memories. It transports me back to a similar afternoon, of more than four decades ago, when to stop an unruly child from running out to play marbles in the boiling afternoon, a visiting Uncle was dragooned into the job of telling him ‘stories’ to keep him indoors. Remember, this was long before Netflix, Playstation or mobile phones. The story of the day was of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughluq with the added incentive of a visit to both, the Dargah and Fort, over the weekend.
Now, even after a gap of four and a half decades for me personally and of almost seven centuries for the city, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s prophetic words seem to resonate even more. ‘Dilli’, is not only ‘door’, it seems ‘door hi rahegi’. Delhi will not get close to you. This is not the city that will welcome you warmly with an enveloping hug and keep you cosy within her comforting bosom. She is the changeling. She is the inconstant lover. The courtesan whose heart is never yours. Who you cannot do without, but who will laugh a tinkling laugh and toss her curls at your face with a casual cruelty as she flounces off with her newest lover. She is the worshipper of power who you can be close to, but who will never be close to you. The mistress you cannot master. Recently in literature, she has been the eunuch lover Bhagmati, been one of the elusive and ungraspable Djinns or been the ‘eruption’ of Capital. She is all this and she is much more. She is an uncatchable ‘door’ away. She is the slip between your cup and your lip.
Delhi attracts. Delhi seduces. Delhi offers to millions, and has for millennia offered, giddy visions of success, of making ones mark in life. From the Indrapat of the Mahabharat, to the Dilhika of the Tomars, from the Sultanat to the Tugluqs, from the Khiljis to the Lodhis, from the Mughals to the British, Delhi has beckoned, winked and called into her bed countless generations of intrepid adventurers as well as refugees. From high aristocracy to the flotsam and jetsam of society – she has beguiled and welcomed them all. And has just as quickly, turfed them out to make a warm spot for another. She has been kind, she has been cruel. She has been what she always was – a worshipper of power.
Over the centuries, there have been many strands, including those of high culture, that have been woven into the DNA of the city — but consistent through them all has been the double helix of power and power again. This is the essence of Delhi — raw, ruthless power. Power is what Delhi was, is and will ever be about. Everything here, regardless of the language spoken or the manners employed, is all about power. About showing it, using it, gaining it or losing it. At every moment, in every sphere, this is the currency that underlies and makes possible every transaction – human or material – that ever happens in this city. This is a city of history, in fact a historians delight, but a city that lives very determinedly and very firmly planted in the present. Everything is all about the ‘now’ and possessing that now, grabbing it if necessary and grabbing it with hairy sweaty fingers, if those are what one has. The past be damned. The future? We’ll see about that - Dekhi Jayegi. This power and its ability to change lives is what lies at the center – it is the beating heart – of the fatal attraction that Delhi possesses and bewitches with.
The current statistics of Delhi’s most modern avatar are alarming. More cars being added on to the roads annually than of all other metros combined. More robberies, more rapes. More corruption, more pollution. More scams, more villainy. And still they come. More and more people come to Delhi. They come in their millions. They come from all over India. They come to make their marks. To find their fortunes. To escape their misfortunes. You will find them cleaning cars, wheeling trollies delivering ‘e-commerce merchandise’, driving your ‘Ola’. You will find them making presentations in corporate offices, striking deals in wholesale markets, clinking glasses in specialty restaurants. You will find them waiting outside bureaucrats doors, you will find them in massage parlours, in hair and make up salons, in resettlement slums, in construction sites. You will find them running businesses, you will find them waiting tables. They will be students. They will be teachers. You will find them everywhere and across every level. They all come to Delhi. They all come to a city whose air you cannot breathe, whose water you cannot drink, whose weather you cannot tolerate, whose streets you cannot walk on and whose people you cannot but fight with. But still they come. And then, they stay. After all, as another poet of a Delhi of another time and another city once said – ‘kaun jaye Zauq, par Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar’.
But wait, there is a pretender to this power. A contender for this attraction. What was a dusty village of largely bovine interest till a few decades ago has now shrugged of its rural somnolence. Has dressed itself up in gleaming steel and shimmering glass. Has suddenly catapulted itself into corporate stardom and labeled itself with a comely immodesty – ‘the millennium city’. Delhi has had many millennia to refine its usage of power. Gurgaon – the newly minted millennium city – has just woken up to it. Here, the display is brazen. In Delhi, it is understated and while certainly used to garner much larger gain, it is rarely so crudely ‘in your face’. Delhi, like any mature statesman believes in old Teddy Roosevelt’s political wisdom – ‘speak softly, and carry a big stick.’ Here, the story is altogether different – here it is always ‘my stick is bigger than yours – and take a long hard look at it – this is my stick – and make no mistake – I will beat you over the head with it unless you go my way.’ Were that not the case, even allowing for the absolutely moronic levels of idiocy in the administration, how could anyone justify the building of a road five times over? In two years? Or justify a roundabout that gets built as a garden, destroyed to be rebuilt as a concrete chowk, destroyed again to be once more reincarnated in a horticultural avatar, once again destroyed for a weirdly hybrid cross between a garden and a circular stone fence – to be finally laid to rest when a flyover is built over it. What can justify this brazen award of the same contract five different times? And where is the accountability for all this? Obviously the people behind this are very confident of the strengths of their sticks and have no hesitation in wielding them left and right. This is the new deal. The new display of power. And this too attracts people in their millions.
Gurgaon, Delhi and Noida. At the center, the still attractive, but now stately dowager of a city. On either side, from two different states, the brash newbies. All now contracted into a hasty marriage and named with a portmanteau abbreviation – NCR – the National Capital Region. A region that people flow into and then scrabble frenziedly to find footholds on the slippery slopes before they get swept away and ground up in the maelstrom that is life here. This churn creates conflicts. And will create stories. Mine is only one such. There are millions more.
Welcome to The Glass House. A year of our days. Hunooz, Dilli Door Ast.
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