The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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DELHI IS NOT FAR By Ruskin Bond, Viking, Rs 195

Pipalnagar is a small Indian town where things do not happen. In its arid landscape, days and nights are the same. People here live from hand to mouth, without much to make them aspire for a bright future. Pipalnagar has never witnessed great historic events. And yet, it has a charm of its own, which manifests itself in “the desire to love and be loved” of its inhabitants.

Ruskin Bond’s Delhi Is Not Far is a sensitive exploration of that love, which engenders a community feeling among people of diverse occupations, notwithstanding extreme poverty. This is why an apparently rootless band of people from obscure areas who meet by chance find themselves strongly attracted to each other under the magic spell of this dull and unromantic town.

Bond’s novella is set in Nehru’s India of the Sixties. The protagonist-cum-narrator is Arun, a freelance writer of detective novels in Urdu. He is desperate to move out of Pipalnagar in search of greener pastures. For the time being, he stays in Pipalnagar not so much by will but out of compulsion. But his involvement with the town grows as he learns to penetrate the hard crust of its quotidian reality and discovers romance “lurking in unlikely places”.

He starts feeling protective towards Suraj, a homeless lad whom he meets in a meadow when the latter is seized by an epileptic fit. Again, Kamla, forced to prostitution by her husband, strikes up friendship with Arun, and later with Suraj. The community feeling is in the air.

What the people of Pipalnagar have in common are poverty and the tendency to daydream. They all sustain, and are sustained by, a grand illusion — of a life outside Pipalnagar, of a life beyond here and now. But that life is a blown-up image of their lived reality as they allow themselves only censored dreams. Thus Deep Chand the barber can only afford to dream of setting up a plush saloon in Delhi and giving the prime minister a memorable hair-cut, Pitamber the rickshaw-puller dreams of owning a scooter rickshaw, while Aziz will be satisfied with a junk-shop in Chandni Chowk.

The book does not have a single story but stories which easily fit into lithe and elastic narrative framework. The characters do not belong to families — they exist singly and enter into relationships not always explicable in terms of standard social codes. There are exploiters like Seth Govind Ram in this society as well, but the the theme of exploitation is never the focus. Bond’s novella is a meticulous chronicle of significant non-events comprising the small circles of personal time which inhere in the broader perspective of historical time.

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