The past two decades or so have seen the beginnings of a shift in the power base of the world from the West to the East. Japan has of course been an economic power almost since the end of World War II and South Korea came on strong in the 1970s. When oil was discovered under the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, formerly impoverished sheikdoms became movers and shakers through petroleum power.
But the country that has captured the most attention in the past ten years has been India. Always one of the world's most populated countries, it has been lumped into the category of "developing nation" since the end of British rule in the late 1940s. So for most of the West, India's entrance onto the world stage as one of the most vibrant economies in the last few years has been like the emergence of a new popular star from nowhere.
Like all supposed "overnight sensations" that have appeared out of "nowhere," India has always been there. But for most outsiders, the country has been synonymous with poverty, spiritualism, and not much else. It was the country the Beatles went to and where George Harrison learned about the sitar.
It sounds ridiculous saying that now, but such was the chauvinism of people in the West that they were able to distill a culture thousands of years older than our own down to those base elements. Now that has started to change and we are beginning to learn a little about the people and the country that has become a world player.
One of the happy results of this his been the interest in novels written by Indians about India. The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf, just released in the past month in Canada by McArthur & Co, is one of the most recent examples of this excellent phenomenon. If you haven't heard his name before now, that will change with the publication of this book.
The Peacock Throne is set in the Indian city of Delhi. Specifically in one street – Chandi Chowk, in the district around the historic Red Fort – the former seat of Power for the Mogul's and the British, and the former home of the Peacock Throne. It was from the walls of the Red Fort that the British hung participants in the uprising of the 1860s and perhaps because of that, the Prime Minister of India makes a speech from the walls every independence day.
But Saraf's story is about modern Indian history and concerned with the people who are the power of the neighbourhood and the street, not the past or the country itself. But even modern history can be violent and chaotic especially in such a divided country as India. The book opens on the day that Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguard shot and killed her in retaliation for her sending the Indian army into the Golden Temple, the most sacred of Sikh temples in all India, in an attempt to evict anti-government forces.
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.
From his accidental rescue of a Sikh in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination at the beginning of the book, he becomes the one character we can easily care about. He's never quite sure what's going on around him and peers out at the world through glasses through which he can barely see. To everyone around him he is a figure of ridicule and in some cases an embarrassment. But his still continues to doggedly press on because, what other choice does he have?
He is the only truly sympathetic character in the book who has no hidden agenda aside from the one we all have — which is to try and make do as best we can with what we are given. Perhaps Sujit Saraf is offering him as an example of the confusion that besets most decent people when confronted by horrors beyond their comprehension and events they can't control.
The Peacock Throne is about India and Delhi specifically, but it is also about the human condition. Sujit Saraf has written a wonderful novel full of aptly drawn characters and evocative settings. He is unsparing in his detailing of the seamier side of life in the streets of Delhi and the less savoury side of Indian politics.
But in spite of that he is still able to create a picture of Delhi that is exciting and intriguing. It may be scary in places, but what big city isn't? Up until now I've only read books which have featured Bombay -– Mumbai, as it's now known — and known very little about India's other famous city. Like others before him have put Mumbai on the map, Saraf has turned a spotlight on Delhi and given her a closeup.