“After living in poky PG accommodations where I shared a room with 5 people and a bathroom with 10, I finally got my own apartment and I cannot describe that feeling of bliss. All I could afford then was a Godrej cupboard and a mattress. I remember lying on that mattress, staring at myself in the mirror of that Godrej, and just grinning from ear to ear for a long time,” says Naseeruddin Shah, the veteran stage and film actor, who lived in Delhi in his youth.

He was at the book launch of Chanchal Sanyal’s debut novel, The Glass House: A Year of Our Days (Rupa), held at the India International Centre. The novel follows the lives of an upper-middle-class couple, Bengali college professor M.B. and his designer wife Roshni, as they navigate the problems that buying a house in Gurugram necessarily brings. At the most basic level, Sanyal, says the book is about a man’s search for his home. “At the not-so-basic level, it deals with the housing situation in the Capital.”

Shah read out extracts from the novel, giving those in attendance a flavour of Sanyal’s comic style and his ability to paint pictures with words. The actor-director picked passages that he said resonated with him and warned that he would not be going in sequence. So the flowers from a centre-table were moved, on the request of an audience member, and the narration began. He brought the text’s Punjabi “thinking-shinking” landlord, ‘Fat-Bum Khanna’, and quintessential South Delhi glam girl, Malti Patel, to life.

But for the author, Delhi itself is a character. “Naseer bhai wanted to focus on the descriptions of Delhi. For me, the city is as alive as anyone in the book. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve seen it grow and evolve. I know the kind of pressure it’s now buckling under. We are living in a city where we cannot drink the water, breathe the air, walk down its streets. Still, we come here. There is something very attractive about this city, but we are killing it,” he said.

Close to the heart

For Shah, the city is home to a lot of memories from his childhood and college days that he holds very close to his heart. “I remember cycling with a friend from Tolstoy Marg to Princess Park all the way past Mandi House and down Bhagwan Das Road. I don’t think we saw a single car. I spent a lot of time walking around Chandni Chowk. In fact, I’ve even lied about having lived in Gali Qasim Jan to get a role!” he chuckled.

The book isn’t autobiographical though. Sanyal says he has been luckier than his hero and faced fewer problems when buying and selling houses in Gurugram. “But everybody has had one or two of these experiences. I felt it was a story worth telling and I hope it’ll find resonance across audiences, even though it’s not written in the way that most selling fiction is.” By this he means that his novel is a ‘literary fiction’ as opposed to fiction that sells widely.

On his future projects in the literature world, he sheds very little light: “One doesn’t talk about babies before they are born. It’s supposed to be bad luck!”

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