Paul Giffard-Foret reviews The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash
by Uday Prakash
translated by Jason Grunebaum
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Global India and the Dialectic of the Ornament / Excrement:
“Light on exoticism, heavy on reality” and “India for Indians, not India for/in the West”. It is in those terms that Uday Prakash was introduced to the audience at a talk session I attended at the last Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2012. Translated from Hindi, The Walls of Delhi is a collection of short stories speaking directly from the Indian subcontinent with a rawness that can easily be conflated with a desire for the “authentic.” Yet Prakash is not Spivak’s “native informant”, more like Edward Said’s conception of the intellectual/writer ‘speaking the truth to power.’[i] In India, Prakash has been a controversial – at times persecuted – writer for daring to challenge the caste system and those he calls “power centres”. Although Prakash has resided most of his life in India, he considers himself a diasporic, since for him, ‘all Indian writing is writing in exile because of repression.’
The collection depicts ‘a different kind of globalisation, one so stealthy and so secret that not a single sociologist in the whole wide world knows a thing about it.’ (11) This secret world alludes to Indian elites, their corruption and lies, including the literary establishment: ‘These people are no longer like you or me – they’ve helped turn each other into name brands. […] If you poke the head of your broom into contemporary literature, you’ll find a hollow wall stuffed full of money – impure, dirty money.’ (38) It also refers to those “untouchables” – that ‘great mass of broken, maimed, crippled, halfway-human beings, like characters from a Fellini or Antionioni film.’ (10) These two constituencies rarely meet, kept hidden from view under the guise of economic prosperity brought upon by the globalisation we hear in the media.
The Walls of Delhi tells the story of Ramnivas, a sanitation worker living on the city fringes who discovers a cache of cash in a wall. Overnight, Ramnivas becomes a “slumdog millionaire”, but unlike Danny Boyle’s movie, Prakash resists a happy ending, knowing ‘the other ways you read about in the papers, and see on TV, are rumours and lies, nothing more.’ (40) Mohandas won Prakash many fans (and enemies) across India, and is perhaps the most poignant story in the collection. Mohandas (in reference to Gandhi) is from a low caste and the first of his kind to obtain a BA. Despite his qualifications, he is condemned to a life of misery because he neither has connections nor money. His fate echoes Surin’s lament in Mangosil, struck by a “mysterious” disease making his head and brain grow disproportionately: ‘Those who are more well-educated inevitably work as underlings or servants for those less well-educated. […] The most powerful, richest, and best-off people in the world are always less well-educated.’ (198)
We are told ‘all this was happening at exactly the same time as when the ‘India Shines’ campaign was in full force [while] seven hundred million didn’t have a place to wash, bathe, piss, or shit.’ (103) Globalisation had ‘transformed India’s big cities into little Americas, while putting people who lived in the same country into the poorhouse […] and creating countless Ethiopas, Ghanas and Rwandas.’ (107) In a land of contrast and contradiction, sounding like the blurb on a tourist brochure until reality kicks in, this is ‘what Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Bombay look like from way up in the sky compared to the rest of India: incongruous tokens of priceless, shining marble stuck in the mire and mud of the subcontinent’s swamp of chilling poverty.’ (142) In such a phantasmagorical land where glitter and gutter coexist, it seems logical that ‘Prakash has broken from a strict model of social realism that dominated Hindi fiction for much of the twentieth-century.’ (225) However, Prakash is not Salman Rushdie, and although abnormal phenomena occur, these are never left unexplained in the way magical realism does.
If in The Walls of Delhi, slum-dwellers keep disappearing from this city of ‘wealth and wizardry,’ (8) concrete reasons abound, including poverty, disease, internal displacement, and the simple fact that Ramnivas does not count in the eyes of policymakers. After his academic transcripts, including his very identity, is being stolen following a job interview at a coal mines, Mohandas starts wondering whether ‘all the people who had good jobs and held high positions and ran around in automobiles and caroused [were] who they really claimed to be.’ (95) Again, the culprits are well known, coming from ‘criminal, illegal connections and back-door deals, nepotism and nefariousness, bribes and rewards.’ (53) With a wink to Midnight Children, Surin’s disease in Mangosil turns out to be a result of poverty (198) and the heavy knowledge of social injustice (217), as we learn children around the world ‘have been falling victim to an illness for the past several years that causes the head to grow significantly faster than the rest of the body. […] The brains of these children were several times bigger than normal for their biological age.’ (217) They are from poor families, becoming adult before their time, and in their eyes is reflected a world turned upside-down where ‘they [the rich] eat so much they can’t lose weight [while] one kid dies from eating fish caught from the sewer.’ (17)
Beyond “ornamental fantasy,” Prakash like Marx before exposes ‘the major contradiction opposing the increasing pauperization of the workers and the remarkable wealth whose arrival in the modern world is celebrated by political economy.’[ii] As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues, ornamentation is ‘that which is not internal or intrinsic, as an integral part, to the total representation of the object but which belongs to it only in an extrinsic way as a surplus, an addition, an adjunct, a supplement.’[iii] Decorative in purpose, an ornament reveals as much as it masks a fundamental imbalance in an object, since ‘it is this visual absence of order that makes the inessential excess of ornament necessary.’[iv] Beyond the Orientalist glamour of Bollywood and superficial talks of India rising, Prakash unveils something fundamentally rotten in the state of India, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
As Derrida wrote in ‘La Parole Soufflée’ (stolen speech), ‘Defecation, the “daily separation with the faeces, precious parts of the body” (Freud), is, as birth, as my birth, the initial theft which simultaneously depreciates me and soils me.’[v] In opposition to the ornamental, Prakash writes (in) the “excremental” mode, not an addition to, but a separation from, the body in which the roughness of life in India – especially for women – is laid bare:
As she sat groaning and washing off her blood and the spit and semen of the contractor, inspector, and Ramakant, she had the feeling that at four in the morning she had been ogled by the eyes of many men in the darkness from across the bylane. Bloodletting, blood-soaked, bestial violence: these people stayed up all night to watch this? Not a wink of sleep, smelling the shit from the sewage all night long? This was their idea of fun? (149)
Here, we may refute that the excremental is a decorative, inessential adjunct, in that it draws from our basest instincts and a morbid fascination for others’ misery, as in the case of those voyeurs, so that ‘it is precisely these ‘everyday details’ that render Asian Australian texts exotic and ornamental.’[vi] To revert to Boyle’s movie, a liking for the excremental (in the opening scene, Jamal must dive into a pool of feces to get an autograph from his movie star) can be associated with a liking for sensationalism in the mode of ornamental fantasy. Boyle was criticised, precisely so, for making money out of, and romanticising, the misery of others.
What distinguishes Prakash is that his is a realistic portrayal, leaving no room for add-on elements, be they aesthetically pleasing or repulsing. His “excrements” respond to the internal logic of the text, where there is no escape – only temporary relief. Prakash never romanticises bohemia when his narrator declares: ‘Maybe every writer’s fate is to live on the street, in the gutter.’ (162) In the manner of a Jack London in his autobiographical account of the East End slums of London in The People of the Abyss, Prakash’s underworld remains fundamentally untranslatable: ‘When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers, I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, othercaste experiences from his home at the bottom of the sea.’ (163)
Prakash’s characters evoke how the ghostly operations of capital through which part of a worker’s wage is extracted (excremented) to be then reinvested (ornamented) in the form of surplus value leaves no trace – is invisible – capitalism’s best kept ‘secret’[vii]. The Walls of Delhi thus starts with this epigraph, sounding a warning against the power of mystification: ‘This story’s really just a front for the secret I want to tell you – a secret hidden behind the story.’ (2) Strictly speaking, the money found by Ramnivas in a cache is stolen money – that is, money that should be duly his, just as Mohandas’ identity is stolen, or that each of Shobba’s children die in Mangosil, as many stolen lives sacrificed on the altar of modernity. Yet someone like Ramnivas ‘simply doesn’t exist anywhere – no trace is left,’ (33) since ‘newspapers’ raison d’être is to hide that news, to edit everything that they suffer.’ (8) Prakash’s characters are ‘like the tears of an ill-fated fakir, leaving only the tiniest trace of moisture on the ground after he’s got up and gone. The damp spot on the ground from his spit and silent tears serves as protest against the injustice of his time.’ (8)
In her last book, Gayatri Spivak has located subalternity in the excremental – where barely a trace remains – so that in the sewage of being, no “sewing” back of agency is possible. She quotes Derrida: ‘The essence of the rose is its non-essence: its odor insofar as it evaporates. Whence its effluvial affinity with the fart or the belch: these excrements do no stay, do not even take form.’[viii] As she asks:
How can ontology – the philosophy of being – lay hold of a fart? […] The ontic as fart or belch, the signature of the subject at ease with itself decentered from the mind to the body that writes its inscription […] is also the embarrassment offered by the subaltern victim in the flesh. […] This singularity blows gas in the face of political mobilization and fundamental ontology alike.[ix]
Enter the bowels of globalisation from below, where ‘everyday, one of these new arrivals would suddenly disappear, never to be seen again [into] the round building with a dome right beside the industrial drainage: a crumbling, dark-red brick ruin, with old worn stones.’ (5) Meet Mohandas, that roaming ghost, dispossessed of his livelihood and crushed by a corrupt caste system for trying to improve his status. Hear him now beg for an end to his very existence: ‘Please find a way to get me out of this. I am ready to go to any court and swear that I am not Mohandas.’ (129)
Enter globalisation from above, a world of ‘unccounted money, untraceable money – dirty money.’ (36) Meet those ‘engineers of the empire of money [who] send out the bulldozers – they fan out, non-stop, until even a dirty sprawl of shacks is transformed into a Metro Rail, a flyover, a shopping mall, a dam, a quarry, a factory, or a five-star hotel. And when it happens, lives like Chandrakant Thorat’s are gone for good.’ (136) Finally, do not think this is only happening out there, in a mythical third world of bygones onto which to supplement your deepest fears and desires. No ornament here either; only parasites: ‘There’s no such thing as the Third World. There are only two worlds, and both of them exist everywhere. In one live those who create injustice, and all the rest, the ones who have to put up with injustice, live in the other.’ (206)
[i] Said, Edward. ‘Speaking the Truth to Power’. Representations of the Intellectual, Vintage Books, New York, 1994.
[ii] Althusser, Louis. For Marx, London/New York, Verso, 2005, p. 121.
[iii] Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/
London, 1982, p. 57. Quoted in: Khoo, Olivia. ‘Whiteness and The Australian Fiancé: Framing the Ornamental Text in Australia’, Hecate, 27 (2), 2001.
[iv] Wigley, Mark. ‘Untitled: The Housing of Gender’. In: Sexuality and Space (Beatriz Colomina ed.), Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1992, p. 376. (Quoted in Khoo, op.cit.)
[v] Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Routledge, London/New York, 1978, p. 30.
[vi] Khoo, op.cit., p. 68.
[vii] ‘The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers […] reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure.’ Marx, Karl. Capital (Vol III), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1959, p. 772.
[viii] Derrida, Jacques. Glas, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1986, pp. 58-9.
[ix] Spivak, Gayatri. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 174-5.