Paul Giffard-Foret reviews The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash

The Walls of Delhi

by Uday Prakash

trans­lated by Jason Grunebaum

UWA Pub­lish­ing

ISBN 9781742583921




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.