Author: Shiv K. Kumar
Publisher: Random House
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While walking through the bustling College Street in Calcutta as an eight year old, I was often reminded by my grandfather of an age old adage – “Never judge a book by its cover”. According to him, the proverb was much more important literally than in its common metaphorical use. Sifting through reams of bookworm infested pages, he put into place a library at our house that would give any of those run by the Government a run for its money.
Unfortunately he is no longer with us today but I am reminded of him (and the proverb) as I turn over to the back cover of the Train to Delhi by Shiv Kumar. Amidst the glowing and effusive words of praise from the likes of Mulk Raj Anand, Graham Greene and the recently-celebrated Jeet Thayil (for another work, Nude before God ), it carries an extremely catchy synopsis of the novel. While we are promised “a rollicking journey” throughout the novel, the lead character Gautam Mehta is portrayed somewhat as an Indian version of George Fraser’s Flashman.
If only elephants could fly and synopses be true! Shiv Kumar’s novel is far from the rumbling adventure story through the partitioned India of 1947 that its blurb pretends. Neither is it an out-and-out love story, although, to be fair, there is a strong romantic track through the story.
The truest interpretation of Train to Delhi would be that it is the story of a man who uses religion to his own ends. Gautam Mehta is the son of an Arya Samajist Hindu who converts to Christianity to obtain a divorce from his unfaithful wife. Later, he converts to Islam to be able to marry a beautiful Muslim nymphet. In between, he uses his erstwhile religion Hinduism to get himself out of tight spots in a Hindu-dominated North India.
Where Train to Delhi fails is in its narrative. Clearly Shiv Kumar the satirist is far more adept at his work than Shiv Kumar the story-teller. The narrative meanders on often without a sense of purpose. There is neither a sense of high drama nor a sustained flow of comic relief. We are meant to be aggrieved at Gautam’s infant son’s death, but surprisingly the track changes so quickly that we aren’t. We are supposed to be jubilant when Gautam vanquishes his nemesis, but somehow we couldn’t care less.
The one redeeming feature of the novel is the banter between Gautam’s parents. Their contrasting views on their son’s exploitation of religion and their sexual dalliances at an advanced age warm your heart and you might just afford yourself a slight chuckle. Gautam’s father is probably the best etched character in a plot where most others fit in as showpieces to keep the story going. Apart from that, the author does try to portray a realistic picture of Delhi and Allahabad in times of strife.
However, there is little else we can look forward to including the eponymous train journey. It takes up a grand total of ten pages and isn’t even pertinent to the actual story. One wonders whether the novel was titled Train to Delhifor lack of a catchier title.
The aforementioned Nude before God had come in for high praise because it took up a potential sacred cow – the afterlife – and made a mockery out of it. Shiv Kumar tries to do the same with religion in Train to Delhi but is unable to make up his mind whether to stick to satire, romance or drama. The result is a confusing medley of events in a book which tries to tie up all loose ends at the finishing line but trips on its own shoes. Board this train only if you want to take a glimpse at the relics of our past.