The premise behind “Delhi” was fascinating: People who are connected over vast stretches of time, over the same geography. Could you tell us a little more about what inspired this story?
Well, I was born and raised in Delhi. I took it for granted until I left in my twenties, when observing it from a far shore made me realize just how extraordinary a place it is. I had lived next door to history and drama and never really noticed. Growing up, there were always medieval ruins somewhere in the neighborhood that my brother and I would explore. At one time we lived near an old tomb occupied by a milkman and his family, including his cows. A lot has changed in Delhi since those days—while it has always changed, the changes now are so fast it is nearly impossible to keep up. So every visit home I have to reacquaint myself with it. But despite the madness of urban sprawl, the places where I grew up are mostly still there—you can still imagine, in the midst of crazy traffic or in a busy shopping center, the dramas of history, and characters famous and ordinary who must have walked in and lived in some of the same areas.
I am still a Delhiite, no matter where I live—my formative years, the adventures of my childhood and early adulthood took place there. So it is inevitable that I would write about it—it was only the third story I published, I think. I had all these thoughts and impressions about Delhi, and history, and change, and this is how I made sense of it.
In this story, the titular city of Delhi is like a character in its own right. You draw heavily upon its architecture and past in the storytelling. How often do the history and geography of your settings play a role in your writing?
I really believe in place as character. Modern humans like to pretend geography is not important, since we can now live in deserts or mountaintops, but that is really an illusion. Geography shapes us, shapes our cultures and our imaginations, and in that sense, place is character. I am very much affected by place—whether it is a concrete jungle or wilderness. As a physicist, I am particularly aware that matter speaks—through physical laws, through constant interaction with its surroundings. So I can’t ignore it, can’t shut it out and pretend that only humans exist. History is also crucial. We are a storytelling species, and when we tell stories of the past, we select things to talk about and leave other things out. We weave events into patterns with narrative interest. Especially because I come from a once-colonized country, and because I am among the early generations of people born in a free India, I am interested in interrogating, contextualizing and connecting with my own history—a part of a decolonizing process, I think. So by writing this story I was able to—through Aseem—talk to Delhi’s past inhabitants, situate myself as part of something larger to which I belong in space and time—and although I can move in and out of Delhi, unlike Aseem, I am formed by it, haunted by it. So you might say, fancifully, that I am its instrument—the city is writing one version of its story through my eyes.
I was fascinated by the bare glimpses we were shown of the segregated Delhi of the future. Was this riffed off social fractures present in the city of today, or was that stark vision inspired by something else?
Colonialism exacerbated existing social inequalities and introduced new forms. In the past three decades, globalization and neoliberalism have deepened these fractures to an extent that is hard to believe—the Indian rich live shamelessly opulent lives, and while the middle class is growing and thriving, the majority of the population remains poor. Farmer suicides, the displacement of peoples from their historical lands in favor of corporations and profiteering, the continued mass migration of such peoples to cities like Delhi—all I had to do was to extrapolate some of these trends into the future. Yet there is always resistance. I’m not talking only about individual personal resistance, but also alliances between one person and another, and between communities in the face of oppression and exploitation. In this story, Aseem is very much alone at the start, but as he begins to understand his entanglements with the city and with history, and also with the people around him, he starts to make these alliances.
What I loved about this piece is the way you seamlessly blended tropes from fantasy and science fiction: The mysticism and fates mixed with pieces of a dystopian future. How do you approach genre in your writing? Do you think of it at all?
I don’t think of genre at all, when I am writing. Usually the way I write is to start with a sentence that comes into my head, along with a character and a setting. I rarely have much idea where it is going to go. I have to write the story to find out. My unconscious picks random threads and weaves them together. For instance I have been interested in complex systems for a long time, and that is certainly a thread that is important in this story. A city as a complex system, as a kind of organism that might eventually become sentient (in a way analogous to life arising as an emergent phenomenon from “mere” chemistry)—these things fascinate me both because of my scientific background and because I am a writer. I am also interested in time, which from a physics perspective is far more interesting than the way we think about it in everyday life. Laws of nature (so far as we know) forbid traveling back in time (unless we can resolve certain paradoxes) but the only instrument that can do so, if imperfectly, is memory and imagination. So it came to me as I was writing the story that perhaps a man’s brain, if it was somewhat abnormal, could go beyond his own past to jumping back and forth along the time axis, but in a way that would either not affect history or enable it. Fun ideas to play with!
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