Delhi at the Margins

Delhi at the Margins

Aishwarya Subramanian

In this paper, I talk about two short stories by Vandana Singh, both set in Delhi, which is also my home. Delhi is generally understood to be made up of seven, overlapping, older cities which were built by various dynasties from the eighth century CE (Biswas Sen 360). When, in 1911, New Delhi was created as the capital of British India, the move was understood as an attempt to legitimize British rule within a lineage of power in the subcontinent (360). I mention this because this paper is part of a larger project examining how recent speculative fiction set in Delhi builds its understanding of this affinity to power into its portrayal of the city.

I focus on one particular aspect of that power: space, both where we are located in space, and how we move through space. Spaces associated with New Delhi in particular are often used in Indian political discourse as a metonym for cultural and political power–those familiar with Indian politics might recall the use of terms like “Lutyens’ Delhi” (the central, administrative area of the city, designed by Edwin Lutyens) in this context. 

I start off with a couple of scenes from Vandana Singh’s story “Delhi,” first published in 2004, and told from the perspective of Aseem, a man who is sometimes able to see visions from the city’s past and future. 

The girl he is following is just another Delhi University student looking for a bargain, trying not to get jostled or groped in the crowd, much less have her purse stolen. […]

She parts with her money with a resigned air, steps out into the noisy brightness and is caught up with the crowd in the street like a piece of wood tossed in a river. She pushes her way through it, fending off anonymous hands that reach for her breasts or back. (23)

This scene is set in the Delhi I grew up in; a young woman walking along a crowded street, and very aware of the possibility of sexual assault. To many of us, particularly women from crowded cities, this tentative negotiation of public space is very familiar. As Srila Roy has demonstrated, Indian women’s access to public space is in a constant state of negotiation (74); it’s perhaps understandable that this story about walking through Delhi is told from the perspective of a man, though as an unhoused person Aseem also frequently finds his right to public space challenged.

Later in the story, Aseem meets a woman from the future; an immigrant to a future Delhi, which she refers to as “The Immaculate City.” The woman has “heard many stories about the fabled city, and its tall, gem-studded minars that reach the sky, and the perfect gardens. And the ships, the silver udan-khatolas, that fly across worlds” (32). Yet while the powerful may “fly across worlds,” that doesn’t seem to be true of everyone else. The woman has lost her documentation, a dangerous thing in this future, and one that causes her to panic about the possible consequences to her: “They say you must have papers. Or they’ll send me to Neechi-Dilli with all the poor and the criminals” (32). “Neechi-Dilli,” literally lower Delhi, turns out to be the world of the dispossessed that Aseem sometimes glimpses in his visions while underground on the Delhi Metro. Though in this future, the division of space appears vertical rather than horizontal, as in Aseem’s present, movement for ordinary people is constrained by paperwork, as well as fear of gendered, caste, class, or religious violence. [1]

While clear boundaries affect movement through the city, “Delhi” depicts the space of the city itself as fundamentally unstable. Singh invokes the image of the seven medieval cities upon which Delhi is built, and Aseem’s visions ensure an overlaying of temporalities so that all of Delhi’s past and future cities are present at once. Here, the boundaries of the city are both constantly in flux and potentially predatory:

The city’s needs are alien, unfathomable. It is an entity in its own right, expanding every day, swallowing the surrounding countryside, crossing the Yamuna which was once its boundary, spawning satellite children, infant towns that it will ultimately devour. Now it is burrowing into the earth, and even later it will reach long fingers to the stars. (38)

Delhi’s outward expansion also extends its politics of power and exclusion. The space of the city itself seems to deny the possibility of transformation, or of a more egalitarian social order. Compare this with another opening image, from Singh’s story “Indra’s Web,” first published in 2011: 

Mahua ran over the familiar, rock-studded pathway under the canopy of acacia trees, her breath coming fast and ragged. She would have to stop soon, she wasn’t as young as she used to be, and there was a faint, persistent pain in her right knee—she loved this physicality: heart thumping, sweat running down her face in rivulets, the forest smelling of sap and animal dung, grit on her lips from the dust. The forest was where she got her best ideas; it was an eternal source of inspiration. (125)

There’s none of the negotiation of space that we saw in the previous story; Mahua’s freedom of movement allows for this description to both be very physical but also allows the character to be distracted by several ideas that are unconnected to her personal safety.

“Indra’s Web” takes place in Ashapur, a near-future, sustainable utopia. We are told that this settlement, whose name means “city of hope,” was a former slum on the edge of Delhi, populated by climate refugees from Bangladesh. Throughout the story we’re reminded that all residents have the freedom to travel through the space, and an understanding that all have a stake in their home. A meeting of residents trying to solve a problem with a malfunctioning solar tower, for example, involves “arguments and discussions in Hindi, English and Bangla: Salman, deep in conversation with Namita and Ayush; Hamid, a young trainee who had once begged on the streets as a child, patiently explaining the situation to the boy who had brought the tea” (129). Shortly after, we meet “a sleepy boy . . . one of the former street urchins” (133) in the control room of the suntower. This is a radically egalitarian vision of the city as accessible to all of its citizens, both in its spaces and in the process of its governance. 

Within the story, Ashapur is an outlier, a visionary experiment whose residents are still having to convince outsiders of its viability. It is significant that Ashapur can only exist on or outside the boundaries of Delhi itself, that change on this scale can only be realized when we leave the space of the imperial city altogether.

Despite this, I want to argue that there are some significant commonalities across these two stories. The notion of the titular web underpins “Indra’s Web”; it’s in the myconet that Mahua listens to as she runs, the solar energy grid, and the networks and webs of ideas and emotion between humans and the world they live in. Like Aseem in “Delhi,” Mahua has an unusual perspective—her apophenia ensures that the reader is constantly reminded of the interconnectedness of her world. In “Delhi,” Aseem struggles to come to terms with his own place within a vast network of relationships across time and space. Yet the story ends with a coming-to-terms and a renewed commitment to his place within that network; “looking out for his own kind, the poor and the desperate, and those who walk with death in their eyes” (“Delhi,” 38). Like Mahua, he visualizes the system he’s a part of as a network; in his case, a satellite image of “knots of light [. . .] stretching tentacles into the dark” (38).

In her recent essay, “Utopias of the Third Kind,” Singh returns to this metaphor of webs and weaving:

The metaphor of weaving is particularly natural for me, having grown up with the songs of the fifteenth-century Indian mystic poet and weaver Kabir, so it makes sense to me that we are weaving the world and simultaneously being woven by it, into being, into change! And this leads me to another realization, that proto-utopias of the Third Kind may sometimes exist here and now without our noticing—in temporal, embryonic ways, in small spacetime pockets even in colonial and capitalist spaces. These pocket proto-utopias, at once individual and collective, exist briefly in the places and moments when we sense—when we make and are made by—the relationships that make the world whole (33).

And this is key in the context of some of the conversations I heard at the 2023 SFRA conference—that utopias can exist at many scales, can be specific and relational and interlinked, can exist at the margins of power. Singh draws for her metaphor on Kabir; I want to invoke one of his contemporaries and juxtapose Ashapur with “Begumpura,” the utopian city imagined by the fifteenth-century Bhakti poet Ravidas. This “Sorrowless City” is one in which there is no pain, no property ownership, no difference in status (“none are third or second—all are one”). “Begumpura” is an unusual poem for a Bhakti poet in that there’s no mention of god; the utopia it imagines is an earthly one (Omvedt 106). And crucially, it is a utopian space, whose denizens “do this or that, they walk where they wish, / they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged. / Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free, / those who walk beside me are my friends” (this translation by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer [qtd in Omvedt 106–107]). Ravidas, from an oppressed caste, imagines walking “unchallenged” through space; a world where, as Omvedt notes, “the rich and privileged castes cannot impose restrictions of place upon the subordinated castes and the poor” (107). But beyond this he also imagines walking with others; there’s an extending of kinship and connection. And beyond its resonance with Singh’s two stories, this is the act of citizenship, in its sense of “city dweller.” I think of the work of Teresa P. R. Caldeira, for whom citizenship is an active commitment to and reimagining of the city, and of adrienne maree brown’s work. 

There’s a lot more to be said about the model of utopia that Singh is proposing in that essay, and how/where it intersects with other conversations about speculative fiction, activism and utopia, and what this means for the future Delhis we might imagine, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. 


[1] Reading this exchange in the context of India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act is particularly chilling.


Biswas Sen, Lipi. “From Cybermohalla to Trickster City: Writing from the Margins of Delhi.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 54, no. 3, 2018, pp. 360–371.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.

Caldeira, Teresa P. R. City of Walls. U of California P, 2001.

Omvedt, Gail. Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals. Navayana, 2009. 

Roy, Srila. “Breaking the Cage.” Dissent, vol.  63, no. 4, 2016, pp. 74–83.

Singh, Vandana. “Delhi.” 2004. The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Zubaan, 2008. pp. 19–38.

—. “Indra’s Web.” 2011. Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Small Beer, 2018, pp. 25–134.

—. Utopias of the Third Kind. PM Press, 2022.

Dr. Aishwarya Subramanian is an assistant professor of English at O.P Jindal Global University in Haryana, India. Her research encompasses popular and genre fiction, children’s literature, spatiality and postcolonial nationalisms, with a particular focus on post-imperial Britain. Her recent work can be found in Comparative Critical Studies, Space and Culture, The Lion and the Unicorn, and Jeunesse.

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