There are times when a book leaves you spellbound because the story was so beautifully conceived and woven that it binds you to itself. There are other times when a book sides with facts, comments on the issue that are important, especially political in nature, other times when the characters are so well written and drive the plot forward that you can’t get enough of them. Then there are books that do it all so effortlessly that you are left thinking that your review, your words about it would never do justice to the beauty of it. ‘A Delhi Obsession’ by M.G.Vassanji is one such book.
I can only try writing about the beauty of this book but a piece of advice I have is that you should read it to know the communal divide in India, how its ‘self and the ‘other’ on the basis of religion, how Islamophobia has been normalized in the past 7 years, how we can’t eat, drink or even love of our own accord and will.
“He liked history, enjoyed finding out about the past, yet he was so free of it himself. It was liberating to know a person without handicaps, yet she had sensed that he felt rootless and sometimes lost. Delhi had given him his history, himself.”
‘A Delhi Obsession’ as the name suggests is about Delhi. The book has a lot of facts, talks about the history of the city. The book made me aware of things about the city I have been living in for the past 25 years. But it’s not just about Delhi, we have a love affair between a 40 something Mohini- a married woman with 2 daughters and Munir Aslam Khan- a retired writer who was recently widowed, was living in Toronto but had a scattered connection to India and decides to visit the country for research and decides upon Delhi to be his first stop because that’s from where his grandfather had migrated 70-80 years ago. Munir and Mohini’s affair is at the forefront but that does not let the other things take a backseat. From beautiful descriptions of Old Delhi, mentioning places like Nizamuddin Dargah, Chandni Chowk and Dariba Kalan and discussing the nuances and details to bigotry, the stupid topics for Prime Time debates, the religious divide and partition, there are many topics that the author discusses.
There is a particular instance where Munir is sleeping peacefully in his room and these ‘Hindu Rakshak’ goons go inside his room and scare him just on the basis of ‘speculations’ and of course, his name. It reminded me of a scene that involved speculation that a student was carrying beef from the Manoj Bajpayee starrer ‘The Family Man’. The common stereotype of a Muslim name being associated with terrorism is played upon. It’s sad that it has become this common. It’s worse that it’s mentioned in every other book by an Indian author. There are many instances that seem ridiculous but sadly they are real enough and are happening to a particular sect of the society in India.
The author brilliantly captures the essence of present day India. The writing is simple yet profound. M.G. Vassanji has a way with words. There are many recent judgments that the author has referred to which blends the contemporary with history perfectly. One thing that I loved and would like to point out is that usually when it comes to Diaspora writers representing India or a particular Indian state gets monotonous or repetitive and more often than not the author gives us a representation that is an archetype or what you can call as their memory of India. But with Vassanji that is not the case. His research is extensive and his knowledge is vast and the book reflects that.
A suggestion that I have is that you should keep your judgements and biases in check if you read this book. The author is not trying to justify an extra marital affair but he does not vilify it either. I might be a little biased but I have to say this- ‘This is the best book you can read if you want a wholesome book, if you want to learn about Islamophobia in India, if you want to learn about Delhi, if you want to read political fiction. Well, I love books that take me back to my student days. It involved taking notes, marking paragraphs, using sticky notes, highlighting all the important stuff and ‘A Delhi Obsession’ was one of those books.
The ending was abrupt but necessary. The writing is refined and not biased. It’s lucid and leaves you asking for more. I’m clearly in the awe of the writing, the premise, the characters just about everything in this book. I was avoiding it but I think I will just say it. By far it’s my favourite read of 2021.