I got this book as a birthday gift less than 2 months back, and looking at the size of the book, I was not sure if I would be able to read it so soon and so fast. Couple of weeks back I picked up this book from the heap of my un-read books and not sure what made me pick up this book, as this was probably the longest book out of all others. May be its bright red color was shouting from the shelf ‘Pick me up and read’, may be the words that describe the old city of Delhi, a place that has always been a mystery to me, were calling me, but as I finish reading it today,’ I am happy, I read it’

Some say that some of the best books in literature are the books that describe a place and weave a story around the place, characters walk past the place and the place describes the story of these characters, their obvious and not so obvious relationships, the circumstances that hold them together, the secrets that they hold or think they hold in their hearts. This book also weaves a story around a space called Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Although the storyline runs from 1984 to 1998, a period of 14 years and narrates the story through the major events in the city like Massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984, Mandal Commission agitation in 1990, Babri Masjid in 1992, demolition drive in Delhi in 1996 and wrapping up with elections in 1998. Story is woven around few characters throughout this 14 year period, but it keeps referring to the time when it was called Shahjahanabad and there was a canal that went from Red fort to Fatehpuri masjid and the moon used to shine in water and hence the name Chandni Chowk. Probably from the time it was inhabited this area of the city has been the center of action. It was once a home to Ghalib and it is now the center of all trading activities in the country.

The story traverses around the representative characters of Chandni Chowk. Lala Sohal Lal, a trader who comes to Delhi from Rajasthan and tries to establish himself as a seth whose ancestors have all lived in Delhi, who masterminds most of the plans very subtly to nurture his ambition to become an MP from Chandni Chowk. Chitra Ghosh, a girl from college who sets up an NGO to educate street children, but somewhere becomes a lead journalist whose articles can change the fortunes of people. Suleman, whose only strength is that he belongs to minority community, and he keeps playing that card through out his life. There are various businessmen in the story who mix business and politics in such a way that both their ambitions are taken care of. There is a sardar character called ‘Kartar Singh’, who highlights the 1984 happenings and the through him the author reveals the not so known things about betting in cricket. He represents the typical sardar whose ambition to reach Canada one day and live a ‘happily ever after’ life. Then there is Gauhar, who grows the other way round, first in the world of adults and then discovers a foster father, is used by communal parties and finally dies trying to do good for his father who is the only one he relates to. There is Gulmohar aka Gita didi, who is a Nepali girl duped into prostitution but a series of unplanned conversations and a dash of ambition make her a leader through an NGO she runs, and a force to reckon with in the area.
The central character is a chaiwala in Chandni Chowk called Gopal, who till the 3/4th of the book is one of the characters, but takes the center stage towards the end of the book. Through him the author shows the plight of a simple man, who is basically good hearted, who lands up with a pot of gold, but is unable, to open it through the 14 years and when he finally does it is not for his own use. He is used by the seth he trusts through the years, through the years he keeps loosing people including his own and adopted son, but once in his life lands up with something that he had never even dreamt of in his wildest dreams, which is a big thing for the world, but he is not even aware of what he has got and hence lets it go the same way as it came.

It’s a story of a physical space and the characters that inhabit the place and give the place a character. It’s the story of their relationships which are as human as they can be, their dependence on each other, their playing around with each other, their feelings about each other and their constraints that limit them and their destinies which play its own role in the web of things that happen, their backgrounds and life experiences that define their actions and reactions, their individual and collective identities. It’s a story of Chandni Chowk and its everyday life, which gets disturbed here and there when some major events happen, but then gets back to where it was.

It was after ages that I read an NRI author and appreciated. Unlike most of his peers, Saraf definitely has a well researched his subject, has well defined characters and an engaging storyline, a story that has something to say, which is not about second generation Indians in US. I guess the book could have been a little shorter, at times the detailing was too much and repetitive, but apart from that it was a pleasure reading the book. Even when the story is predictable to some extent, you want to read what is going on in each characters mind, what will they do next, will they win or loose? I must congratulate Sujit for a writing this wonderful book, and hope to get hold of his other books to read. And thanks Deepa, for gifting me this book.

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