There is something remarkable about Ruskin Bond’s novella ‘Delhi is Not Far’, no matter how many times you read it. Whether twelve or fifty, whether Indian or not, the novella is bound to have the same intoxicating effect on everyone– it expresses every thought you’ve ever had, putting them into words beautifully. Every read leaves you feeling warm, fuzzy and sometimes, overwhelmed with how perfectly the story is written. ‘Delhi is Not Far’ is my ideal book– the perfect mixture of storytelling, descriptions, humour, and mind-blowingly real characters, who might as well step out of the story and onto the streets of India.
Based in the sixties, in the small town of Pipalnagar where nothing ever happens, the story is told from the point of view of Arun, an aspiring writer, who aims to one day live in Delhi. While the town of Pipalnagar is almost a character of the story in itself, Arun is only living there because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
‘One should live either in a city or a village,’ he writes, ‘In a village, everyone knows you intimately. In a city, no one has the slightest interest in you. But in a town like Pipalnagar, nobody loves you; when you die, you are forgotten; while you live, you are only a subject for malicious conversation. Poor Pipalnagar…’
The entire story, though, contradicts this statement, and it is not long before you fall in love with Pipalnagar, in all its glory– the barber, and the beggars’ union, the lizards on the walls, the rain and the constant music, and in true Ruskin Bond fashion– a small room with a balcony, often shared by the tea shop vendor or the beggar boys. Pipalnagar has the charm of any small Indian town, and it is sometimes hard to understand the protagonist’s disdain for it.
Arun first meets Suraj when he is passing by some fields, and notices someone shaking violently, hidden by stacks of ripened wheat. Suraj is eighteen years old, an orphan who lost his parents in the communal holocaust of 1947. He is gentle and sensitive, and sells small items like combs and perfumes for a living, while spending the nights studying for his exam at Pipalnagar college. If he passes his exam, Suraj believes that he can make a place for himself in the world. If he fails, though, there is only the prospect of Pipalnagar.
It is clear from the very beginning that Arun has an especially soft spot for Suraj, to put it lightly. His world quickly begins to revolve around Suraj, and it doesn’t take time for their whole lives to be intertwined completely– with Suraj, who doesn’t have a home of his own, soon beginning to sleep in Arun’s room, and Arun’s confession that they hardly ever end up sleeping– usually just spending the entire night talking amongst themselves.
It is unclear whether Arun and Suraj’s relationship is romantic or platonic. Either way, how much they love each other is plain to see, in every interaction they have.
From the very first time they meet, when Arun takes care of Suraj after his fit, to the time when Arun goes to look for Suraj one night when he doesn’t turn up to his room, walking around Pipalnagar for two hours before he finds him asleep on a bench in the fields. Suraj, meanwhile, encourages Arun to follow his dreams, write his book, go to Delhi.
“I would like you to come with me,” Arun tells Suraj in reply, “Perhaps they can make you better there, even cure you of your fits.”
“Not now. After my examinations.”
“Then, I will wait.”
If there is any doubt left regarding Arun’s love and regard for Suraj, it all goes away when, while playfully wrestling with Arun, Suraj gets a fit– Arun’s instinctive reaction is to hold him tight and pull him closer, trying to take his pain away.
When he notices that Suraj is about to bite his tongue in his delirious state, he doesn’t think twice before putting his hand into Suraj’s mouth to stop it. Suraj bites his hand instead, with unimaginable force, and once he is conscious again, Arun quietly conceals his hand, later telling Suraj that he cut it on glass.
Such deep love between two men is refreshing to see, at the least– especially when it is two Desi men from a small Indian town, in the sixties. At the most, the pureness of their love, and how nothing can come between it, is soul-stirring.
This love is best shown when Arun, while sitting next to Suraj, realizes how much he loves him, and decides to write him a letter. It is apparent when he talks about how brilliantly aware he feels of Suraj even when he is far away, how familiar being with Suraj is, like they’ve known each other forever. It is apparent when he writes, ‘Only once had I felt the presence of God. I woke one morning, and finding Suraj asleep beside me, was overcome by a tremendous happiness, and kept saying “Thank you, God, thank you for giving me Suraj.”’
It is obvious that there is nowhere that Arun is going without Suraj, so when they do finally decide that it’s time to go to Delhi, it is together– the start of something new.
But Arun and Suraj aren’t the only interesting characters in the novella– there is also the character of Kamla, a young girl sold to her husband, who is about twice her age. A prostitute by profession, Kamla is clever, sometimes gentle and sometimes fierce, with a soft spot for both Arun and Suraj. She longs for a real family, and on the day of Raksha Bandhan, ends up declaring them both her brothers.
It is she who, at the end of the story, tells Arun that it is Suraj who stole his heart– it is a reminder that no one else could ever even get close to what Suraj means to Arun, nothing could ever break what they have.
‘Delhi is Not Far’, in the end, is the perfect representation of life in small town India, and how everyone there is always dreaming of something more.
Arun sums it up perfectly when he tells Suraj, towards the end of the story, “This is where I’ve existed. I only began to live when I realized I could leave this place.”
“When we went to the hills?”
“When I met you.”
Pipalnagar is beautiful, even though it is something of a mess. The storytelling is perfect, capturing every necessary detail in the most interesting, sometimes most humorous way possible. The characters are genuine and brilliant, clearly drawn from life.
Ruskin Bond has never actually talked about his inspiration for this story, or for the character of Suraj, but ultimately, the beauty of it all leaves us wondering how much of it is real, and how it all began.