Why did you choose Old Delhi, particularly Chandni Chowk, as the setting for your novel,
The Peacock Throne?
Delhi is the city of empire, so it was the natural setting for a novel about the ‘Indian Empire’ and its indifference to the Indian people. Chandni Chowk was the seat of the Mughals from the mid-17th century. Even now, it is from Red Fort that the prime minister speaks on August 15. I cannot imagine another street in Delhi--certainly not Parliament Street or Rajpath--which so appropriately represents the spirit of the novel.
Why did you choose to write a book about the 1984 riots?
The Peacock Throne begins with the 1984 riots and spans 14 years, traversing the Mandal Commission riots, the Babri Masjid demolition and the elections of 1996 and 1998. These are watershed events that, in my opinion, began the unravelling of the Congress umbrella which provided stable but indifferent governments for 30 years. I also like to think that this unravelling is now complete, the UPA government notwithstanding.
Do you think those scars are still there or are they healing now?
Such scars heal after the perpetrators have been punished, the victims compensated, and the social contract renewed to forestall a repeat pogrom. None of these has happened.
Were you a resident of Delhi at any point? What are your own memories of the city like? Where did you stay?
I lived in Chandni Chowk when I was a student at St Columba’s School. It is during those years that I collected the impressions that later found their way into The Peacock Throne. I then studied at IIT Delhi, living on campus. Later, I spent another year in Delhi as an assistant-professor at IIT.
I grew up in a small town in Bihar and studied at a boarding school in Darjeeling. The only city I knew was Calcutta, which was merely an overgrown town in the parts I had seen. So Delhi was my first large city. I was intimidated by its Hindi, which was very different from the way we spoke it in Bihar. I felt ignored and neglected by the traffic, the buildings and the general arrogance, until I lapsed into the same nonchalance that hovers over Dilliwalas.
Your take on Delhi’s rapid transformation in the last few years, with the Metro Rail, etc?
When I started at IIT, we’d buy parathas at a dhaba outside the gate and eat them while strolling on Ring Road. By the time I left, the same road was busy with traffic. Now there is a giant flyover that throws the whole area into shadow. And I have seen the fancy flyovers at the AIIMS intersection, built after I left. I suppose such transformation is natural in a city that is a magnet for so many people.
I do not think new buildings, flyovers and the Metro have changed anything in Delhi. In Chandni Chowk, the shops in Parathewali Gali used to advertise a reward of 1,000 rupees for anyone who could prove that the parathas were not made with pure desi ghee. Now that reward has increased to 10,000. Aside from that, people in Chandni Chowk are still busy buying and selling the same things with the same intensity, and the people round AIIMS are still crowding the bus stand, waiting for bus 502 to Mehrauli. Everyone has a mobile phone, but that has not changed the conversation.
How familiar are you with Delhi? Did you have to come down to research the book’s locations?
I lived in Delhi for seven years. Because I visit almost every year, there was no need for extensive research. The novel drew largely on what I remember about those locations.
Favourite things about Delhi?
There was a time when I thought of Delhi as my future home. I used to enjoy the midnight parathas under Moolchand flyover. We spent much time in the theatres round Sikandra Road. I liked going to the top of my building in Chandni Chowk and looking down on rooftops. I loved the colourful ‘roundabouts’ of Lutyens’ Delhi until I began to regard them as symbols of arrogance. When riding DTC buses, we laughed to hear the conductor say "aage se nahin, peechhey se chadho". When I could afford to take three-wheelers, I noticed that DTC exhaust pipes were aimed to deposit their fumes directly into my face. I do not know if others in Delhi are conscious of this, but its position at the centre of Indian power gave me a feeling of relevance, even as I was merely a speck in the scheme of things.