Twilight in Delhi: The Dawning of a New Era

Nations, that forget their history, never make progress. The building up of something is always harder than its break-up. Twilight in Delhi, a novel written by Ahmed Ali in the early twentieth century, depicts the fall of a civilization. Delhi, once a capital of the Muslim Empire, was now the capital of the British Empire. This is the time when the whole nation was benumbed. It had either forgotten its glorious past, or perhaps, it didn’t want to give it a recall.

The structure of the novel consists of four parts, each of which begins with verse lines, of famous poets. The verse lines reflect the gloomy, melancholic situation of the Muslims. The first part begins with the verse lines

The night is dark, the waves rise mountain high,
And such a storm is raging!
What do the pedestrians know my plight moving
Upon the shore that’s safe and dry?

The one who is hurt, feels the pain of being hurt. Only he can tell what it means to be grief stricken. The second part of the novel begins with the lines

My despair does not know
The turnings of the wheel of time;
The day turned disastrous
Knows neither dusk nor dawn.

This stanza is placed at the beginning of the second part of the book that mentions the year of mutiny, 1857. While coming back from the coronation ceremony, Mir Nihal walks through the streets, thinking of the times when once the guns boomed for their own Kings, he hears a sound of something being rubbed against the ground. A beggar emerges from a by-lane, lifting himself up on his hands, and dragging his legs behind him. Mir Nihal asks him if he saw the ceremony or not…..the beggar remains quiet for a while and then replies, these ceremonies are not for them, once they passed by as Kings’ Princes and people looked at them. He was Bahadur Shah’s youngest son. Immediately after that, the reader encounters these lines:

In the world there is love and beauty,
But there is only blame for me:

Along with the rivers I weep and cry,
The deserts are dreary, dead and dry.

In the last part of the book, Mir Nihal’s health falls day by day, until he becomes bed ridden. The fourth part begins with the lines.

No candle burns upon my grave
Nor blows a drooping rose;
And no moth burns its wings in the flame
Nor the bulbul sings his woes.

Under this gloomy atmosphere, however, the city leads its normal routine life, with households like that of Mir Nihal’s, where the whole family lives in a joint family set-up, sharing their joys and sorrows together. Begum Nihal, a devoted wife, always waits for her husband’s arrival, till the time he finally arrives, be it midnight or early, the next morning!!! She serves him with food, sits beside him with a hand fan, comforts him, because she cares.

Asghar, the eldest son of the family, a graduate from a university, has his own activities, his circle of friends, with whom he is all the time busy, in kite flying, playing cards, roaming around, going out in the night. He is busy in several other kinds of activities, like visiting a dancing girl, having intimate relations with her.

The author depicts the social life of the city. The portrayal is extremely realistic, with everything told in complete detail. The reader gets the feeling of having the privilege of actually walking through the streets of Delhi. The reader hears the noise of the vendors, pheriwalas and beggars on the streets. While reading this novel, the fluttering of the pigeons wings, kite flying, qawwalis and various other traditions can be observed through this novel.

Also the writer brings into his description, mushairas and other literary activities. We also a find a ‘true-to-life’ portrayal of the characters in the novel. The author paints their pictures with words. The portrayal of characters like Maulvi Dulhan, Mir Sangi and kambal Shah are superb. A complete detail of the social life of those times can be found in this novel. Hence, this novel provides a social history of the times when Muslims of sub-continent were on decline.

Mir Nihal, a man of principles, takes pride in relating the glorious past of the Muslim rulers, to his grand children. At the coronation ceremony, he reminds his grandson that it was the Muslims, who ruled this land for thousands of years. He dosen’t like Asghar’s getting dressed up like farangis. At one point in the story, he comes to know that his grandchildren pick up money from under the pillow, he thunders at them, instructing them never to do such thing again. The ‘getting bed ridden’ and falling sick, of Mir Nihal, in fact represents the fall of the civilization of Delhi.

Ahmed Ali, the author, never states his message directly in the novel. To read this novel as a mere record of social history would be a fault. Also, Ahmed Ali (1993) writes in the preface of his novel, “In the process of transformation from Indian to ‘brown Englishman,’ I found that I had lost not only my freedom but also my culture and individuality, and I have been engaged ever since in search of myself, my identity” ( Ali A., 1993. Twilight in Delhi. p xiv).

The message can be felt only. That is, the nations, who forget their history, can never rise again. In this novel, one finds a reference to the times when the Muslims of the sub-continent, were on the peaks of glory. They were the rulers. They had a rich civilization, the remnants of which can still be seen in the forms of ‘Urdu’ language, the gift of the intermingling of troops, and the architecture of this period. A recall of our history can open up new vistas for us as a nation. If novels like ‘Twilight in Delhi’ be read at school levels, they can certainly cause ‘the dawning of a new era’.

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