For a night the streets of Delhi and the country descended into violence as violent mobs hunted down and attacked Sikhs wherever they could find them; including raiding their houses and killing women and children, and destroying their businesses. But India has long been used to sectarian violence and Delhi picks itself back up and goes back to the business of politics and business.
In Delhi it seems everybody conducts business, from the six-year-old living on the street to the richest storeowner with political aspirations; the only difference is the scale. The percentage that the beggar pays to the police constable on the beat is equivalent to the "donations" made by the shopkeeper for blind eyes being turned to a variety of irregularities.
What is history when you live through it but just another day in your life where you try to get by as best as you can? The people who populate Saraf's Delhi are people doing just that. He doesn't judge his people, they are who they are, nothing more or less, and their characters are so well written that you never once doubt the veracity of their actions.
He doesn't hold back when it comes to depicting the uglier side of life in India and the continual religious turmoil. Nationalist Hindus and Muslim extremists ally to hunt down Sikhs one moment, then are at each other's throats the next. Politicians can say the words "for the good of the community" with sanctimonious pomposity while plotting for the destruction of other people's livelihoods because they are of a different religion.
Intolerance, greed, and ambition are the only things that all characters seem to have in common, and while that may on occasion make them allies, it can also result in carnage. Caring for the people seems to be code for cynical manipulation for far too many politicians the world over, and the Indian councillors and Members of Parliament are no different. While one hand is extended in a pretence of brotherhood and unity, the other is exhorting crowds to throw rocks and break heads.
The sounds, smells, and sights of Delhi come alive through the words of Saraf. As you walk the streets of the neighbourhood with his characters, you see, hear, taste, and smell what they are experiencing. On some occasions you may not wish to, but raw sewage is as much a reality as the tantalizing smells of food and spices.
The India of The Peacock Throne is like that, a series of contradictions. Generosity is too often tempered by thoughts like "what will I get in return?" and "how will it benefit me?" The only balm Saraf supplies for us comes in the shape of a holy fool type character named Gopal Pandey, who stumbles through the story just trying to find his way through the complications that others create for him.