Book review: Delhi of the past and the present

Here is a lovely review of my book, written by the esteemed Intizar Husain

Raza Rumi tells us that he aspired to be an author. His visits to Delhi offered him this opportunity and he availed it. In his exuberance, Rumi started writing without planning beforehand, knowing not how his narrative will end. The narrative, however, came to an end by itself. When published under the title Delhi by Heart, we had a precious book authored by Rumi.

Delhi by Heart is a scholarly work but written in an unscholarly manner. Instead of posing as a scholar or researcher, Rumi likes to be seen as a stranger in a city hitherto unknown to him, a city enjoying the reputation of being the city of cities. Wonderstruck, Rumi wanders in the city, from posh areas of New Delhi to the narrow and dingy lanes of old Delhi. Walking about aimlessly, he enters a lane with shops on both sides selling roses and soon finds himself entering the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. To his amazement, Rumi is suddenly in a different city, traditionally known as Bais Khawaja ki Chaukhat, the threshold of 22 Sufis. Rumi feels that he is moving in a vast world which carries a touch of the divine, where the past and the present merge into each other and the Hindu-Muslim divide loses its edge.

How easy to jump from here and land in the city of the Salateen-i-Delhi, to touch the threshold of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s khanqah where he preached to his disciples, Muslims and Hindus, about the peaceful coexistence of different faiths. At this point, Rumi’s wanderings seem to be transformed into a journey of discovery. Roaming through the world of mysticism and bowing at the dargahs of Chishti mystics, he knows much about this tradition and about the city of Delhi which has been the cradle of this tradition. But at the same time, Rumi wants to keep abreast with the present and learn about the contemporary Delhi. So he is also seen in the company of the modern intellectuals of the city – Khushwant Singh, Professor Mushirul Hasan, Sadia Dehlvi, Rakhshanda Jalil. His narrative easily shifts from the present to the past and from past to the present.

Roaming through the historic ruins spread far and wide in this city, how easily Rumi says goodbye to the present and slips into the vast expanse of Delhi’s history starting from Indraprastha and ending on the stairs of the Shahjahani Masjid where Sarmad sat naked. Rumi writes that in due course, Sarmad “has become a metaphor for the defiance of identities and loyalties, for throwing conformity into the gutter and rejoicing in the ultimate rebellion of wandering the streets as a completely naked faqir”.

During this journey of discovery, Rumi discovers Sadia Dehlvi as his guide, who takes pride in calling herself a pure Dilliwali. And as a Dilliwali, she speaks with equal authority on Dilli kai Sufiya and Dilli ki biryani. Here I am reminded of T.S. Eliot who said: “If we take culture seriously, we see that people do not need merely enough to eat but a proper and particular cuisine: one symptom of the decline of culture in Britain is indifference to the art of preparing food”.

So Dehlvi’s insistence on the authenticity of Dilli’s cuisine is understandable. But Rumi goes beyond what Dehlvi tells him about Dilli’s special dishes. In his search for Indian cuisine, he traces the origin of khichdi in Indraprastha.

Rumi is averse to the male domination in the Indo-Muslim culture as it developed in Delhi. As an antidote to this, he brings forth a galaxy of queens and princesses, Noor Jahan, Jahanara and Zebunnissa to name a few, from different Muslim periods.

Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter, and Princes Zebunnissa, Aurangzeb’s daughter, were both poets as well as mystics. The latter also has to her credit a collection of verses known as Diwan-i-Mukhfi. Rumi writes about her: “Given her father’s dislike of poetry she could only be mukhfi or invisible. And like all rebels she was subversive”.

What distinguishes Rumi’s version of Delhi is his successful attempt to show that the Indo-Muslim culture as it developed in the city was not a purely male-dominated culture. In spite of restrictions, women, especially queens and princesses, asserted their presence and made valuable contributions to this culture. A number of relics in Delhi and also in Lahore stand testimony to this fact. Starting with Queen Razia Sultana, Rumi shows the presence of a number of princesses who not only contributed in the fields of fine arts and social services but also in the sublime field of mysticism. Jahanara in particular was a mystic worth mentioning. We are also told about the sister of a Sufi who was a Sufi in her own right, Bibi Jamal Khatoon, Hazrat Mian Mir’s sister.

But Rumi doesn’t stop in the past. Coming to the present, he talks about Sadia Dehlvi. So should we assume that Dehlvi comes as a tail-ender in this privileged female galaxy? Of course, she herself is content to assert herself as a Dilliwali. In this assertion, she follows the footsteps of those who took pride in calling themselves Dilli ka roda, a pebble of Dilli.

In this book, the Delhi of the past isn’t isolated from the Delhi of the present. Rumi depicts Delhi as it was and as it now stands. And the two don’t appear estranged from each other.

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