New literature on India’s cities is a variation on the old literature of lament

01 June 2014

COUNT ON URDU to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. ... In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. ... Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover.

Some centuries before, it was Sanskrit, like Urdu a language of many cities but identified with no one province, that had the most extensive literature of the Indian urban. As human beings are irresistibly drawn to visions of a bygone golden age, this literature too has its share of lament. An early example depicts decay by describing perfection:

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: urban stories Indian writers capitalism cities Suketu Mehta Indrajit Hazra