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Review by Asif Noorani (Daily Dawn)

376353205828929RAZA Rumi’s Delhi by Heart is by no means a plain, simple and anecdotal travelogue giving details about minarets and monuments, which you can dig out on the internet. It’s a research-based readable account of the city he fell in love with and its dwellers. He moves effortlessly between “time past” and “time present” (and vice versa), to borrow T.S. Eliot’s expressions from Four Quartets. Rumi wears three hats. He is a writer, journalist and development professional who has fallen in love with Delhi. Hence his first book is about a city that he has visited often in recent years. He is enamoured of the Indian capital because some of his favourite personalities were either born there or adopted it as their own.

It was also the nursing ground for his favourite language — Urdu — and a burial place of Sufi saints. His craving for pluralism is eloquently expressed when he says, “As the taxi passed through the jam-packed roads squeezed by brazen encroachments, I wondered about the signages on modern boards — Kidwai Nagar, Hazrat Nizamuddin, Jain Mandir, Okhla, Jamia, Saket etc. Delhi is a multi-petalled lotus like the Baha’i Temple and should be nurtured. The city belongs to all South Asians; those who are in a perpetual state of self-hatred may leave it alone.” For the uninitiated like myself, Delhi by Heart is an inspiring introduction to Sufis and Sufism. Rumi echoes the commonly held view that it were the Sufis who, through their large-hearted and pluralistic attitude and a firm belief in the equality of all humans, were instrumental in the spreading of Islam in the subcontinent.

Rumi says about Khanqahs or the abodes of the Sufis: “These Khanqahs blended local traditions with Islamic values and provided a class-less, monotheistic version of spirituality where the charisma of the pir or his descendants served as powerful elements to attract the local population.” The one who adds immensely to Rumi’s knowledge of Sufism is his friend, philosopher and guide — the quintessential Dilliwali, Sadia Dehlvi. She “personifies Delhi in all its dimensions — the old, the contemporary, evanescent and permanent.” He also shares his love for Urdu with her. Sadia had married a Pakistani and spent quite some time in Islamabad and Karachi. She introduces Rumi to her mentor, the famous writer, historian and journalist Khushwant Singh, who too is an ardent admirer of Urdu. His widely read columns are interspersed with translations from Urdu poetry. Another woman Rumi becomes friends with is the scholarly Rakhshanda Jalil, who at that time held a senior position at the reputed Jamia Milia, an institution that Rumi respects as much as the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Jalil has done much service to Urdu literature by translating some of its masterpieces into English. Her doctoral thesis on the Progressive Writers’ Movement is expected to be available in book form later this year. But the woman of letters Rumi really yearned to meet was none other than the late Qurratulain Hyder. Sadia takes him to meet her, but not before she exclaims, “Visitors from Pakistan have two fixations, the Taj [Mahal] and Ainee Apa!” He paints a lively picture of her house bursting with books and her own paintings: “Time, an important aspect of her novels, had depleted her energies and her once-celebrated beauty. She was evidently frail but there was nevertheless something electric in her manner and conversation which took me a while to register.” Rumi writes a brief introduction for the benefit of those who are unaware of her literary stature. He quotes The Times Literary Supplement, which places her in the same league as her two brilliant contemporaries, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera.

Rumi also gets to meet a thorough Delhiite, Dr Shreekant Gupta, a former director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs. Gupta had rushed to the defence of Pakistan when a UK-based magazine called it the world’s most dangerous place. He referred to cases of violence elsewhere in the subcontinent and explained that by and large, life goes on normally in Pakistan. Rumi enthuses, “As a fellow South Asian, Dr Gupta’s proud challenge to western perceptions appeared to me a testament of his intellectual honesty. In Dr Gupta I found a friend, but more importantly, my country has another well-wisher in the neighbourhood.” Rumi also admires historian Irfan Habib and his work on the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. Much to Rumi’s and most people’s surprise, Habib recalls that Mr Jinnah, in his incisive speech at the Constituent Assembly, had strongly supported Singh as a freedom fighter.

Rumi rues that this part of Mr Jinnah’s life has been forgotten in Pakistan. “All non-Muslims are grouped in one single category which is completely rejected by the rulers of Pakistan, irrespective of their message and their history,” he writes. It is not just eminent Dilliwalas who charm Rumi; there are some hardly known people as well who captivate him. Bunty Singh, a taxi driver, is one such character. Another point worth noting is that Rumi recalls many people linked with Delhi who are no more. From Dara Shikoh and Bahadur Shah Zafar (whom he erroneously calls emperor, when his rule was limited to the Red Fort) to Mir, Ghalib and Amrita Preetam, not to speak of Hakeem Ajmal Khan, everyone gets a fair mention. One wishes Rumi had transliterated the verses that he quotes in their original languages — Persian, Urdu, Hindi or Punjabi. One also notices occasional slips which should have been corrected in the editing of the book. A case in point is what Rumi calls Stanley Wolpert’s ‘autobiography’ of Jinnah. But these are minor blemishes in a book which is worth reading more than once.