Uday Prakash’s stories bring downtrodden characters to life ♦
“I bet you’re thinking that I’m taking advantage of the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the birth of Premchand, the King of Hindi Fiction, to spin you some hundredand- twenty-five-year-old story, dressed up as a tale of today,” writes Uday Prakash, in one of his stinging authorial asides, “But the truth is that the account I am putting before you, in its old and backward style… is a tale of a time right after 9/11, in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York; a time when two sovereign Asian nations were reduced to ash and rubble.”
The truth – whether in that particular story, “Mohandas”, of a low-caste villager thwarted at every step by corruption, or in the two other tales in The Walls of Delhi – is Prakash’s primary obsession. In his title story (the collection is translated by Jason Grunebaum) he charts the changing fortunes of a sweeper who discovers a stash of dirty money in a Saket gym. In “Mohandas”, he destroys any illusion of the modern Indian village as a Gandhian idyll, and “Mangosil” is the story of a family in Jahangirpuri struggling to break into middle class life while coping with a son’s mysterious medical condition. Prakash delicately paints these grey worlds, where power triumphs and corruption festers, then exposes the truth as black and white with moving results. Yet these stories aren’t uniformly dreary; as he writes, “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” These tempering moments of hope, which is constantly smothered, throw the harshness into relief.
Grunebaum captures Prakash’s satirical, darkly funny, conversational style, and though the book would have benefitted from stronger proofreading (a few mis-transliterations of Delhi neighbourhoods particularly jar), The Walls of Delhi is a highly recommended contemporary Hindi collection.