The Garden of Heaven is the first in a quartet of novels set against 800 years of Delhi’s history. The title is derived from an exquisite sculptural piece inspired by nature that is featured in the novel.
Starting with the fall of Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Muhammad of Ghur the novel spans 200 years of Delhi as it chronicles the lives of two families of stone carvers. Sridhar Sahu and Madhav’s descendants, much like orphaned children, are passed from one ruling family to another as they try to please their changing masters.
The novel’s tone is set at the beginning when an orphaned Madhav escapes his burning village in a bullock cart as he tries to outrun an invasion. The author’s deft and economical prose moves the novel quickly from tragedy to philosophy, and wisdom. A tender Balram gently schools Madhav in life using the folklore and myths upon which the city of Delhi is built.
Using the power of stories, especially those about history as an escape from the unbearable reality of the present, is a recurring motif. Liddle’s characters use storytelling as a tool for healing, for rejuvenating the body and soul. We see this between Balram and Madhav, and also between Shagufta, the novel’s plucky young narrator, and Nasiruddin the recuperating soldier.
As Delhi changes hands between the Ghurids, the Khaljis, and the Tughlaqs, the author zooms in on the lives of its poorest subjects, those least interested in who sits on the throne. Until their lives and those of their overlords intersect. These intersection points are the heart of the novel and it is where Liddle’s characters truly shine and come into their own. It is also where she uses the sweeping hand of fate to great effect with spontaneous incidents having devastating consequences for the characters. A successful blurring of history and fiction makes this novel memorable and sections on the friendship between Jaya and Razia, and Aibak’s patronage of Madhav are wonderfully done.
The Garden of Heaven also features strong women characters who drive the plot forward with politics, religion, caste, faith, God, and love all featuring. It is a treat to witness Girdhar’s evolution as he questions his father’s religious dogmas and rejects impositions, learning to think for himself and become his own person. In this, he is ably guided by Amir Khusro and the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Most of the characters are secular in outlook and have progressive values.
This novel is a timely reminder of Delhi’s secular history, and of the temple sculptors who worked on mosques, forts, and mausoleums turning them into monuments of beauty. The city’s history and art supersede religious divides, the way they always have. The novel’s ending suggests that there is more that binds people than separates them; that a few good people can make a difference.
Throughout, Liddle matches history with character detail and nuance and sprinkles trivia about sculpting – the Persian tile maker’s comments about Jama Masjid are especially captivating. She delves into the building of stone arches and the tricks of bending stone to human will, provides details on how to choose the right stone and choose tools, and shows the toll that stone carving takes on the human body, especially the hands. These details bring the story to life.
The transitions between the past and present, however, are confusing. At times both line up with wars, which make it difficult to grasp the timeline. The reader also needs to keep going back to the family tree at the beginning of the book to keep track of characters and bloodlines, which is a little wearying.
However, the quick pace keeps the reader engrossed throughout. The city of Delhi is a silent spectator, keeping a quiet record in stone as houses fall and rise, alliances are made and broken, and poetic justice and revenge exacted. The Garden of Heaven excels at interpreting all this while also providing a detailed and intimate look at the lives of those who built the city and live in it. In the end, Liddle throws in a little philosophical curveball that questions the value of art itself when compared to the pursuit of delirious joy and the value of beauty compared to human life.
The Garden of Heaven manages to capture the effervescence and rashness of youth, the struggle and strife of adulthood, and the helplessness and wisdom of old age set against a city that is always in motion, politically and physically. This book is a paean to an immortal city and it is a promising start to the quartet. I am impatient to read more.
Percy Bharucha is an independent writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha