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Review by Dr Tariq Rehman

Raza Rumi is a well-known TV anchor, a columnist and a public intellectual whose urbane manner and erudite understanding of events are much admired by the discerning public. So, when I began this book I thought I would be reading a travelogue of the author’s tour of India which, being written by a well-read man, would also contain references to books and cultural items.

But as I read on I was taken by surprise, which changed into awe. With fourteen chapters and a glossary I discovered that this was not a travelogue; it was a social and intellectual history of Muslim north India. He begins with the shrine of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya and then juxtaposes the past with the present to create a web of time in which the past is present in the here-and-now. This narrative device hinges upon the present being presented through the conversation of people like Sadia Dehlvi, a social activist, and Rumi’s peregrinations through India. And the past comes through Rumi’s unobtrusive references to books, works of art, archaeological remains, cultural artifacts etc. He wears his prodigious learning light so the text seamlessly shifts from the present to the past and vice versa.

The second chapter, however, dwells mostly on the past. Entitled ‘Realm of the Sufis’ it begins with the sufi saints but goes on to incorporate the present along with the traumatic partition of India. The chapter ends on Alok Bhalla and Pran Nevile’s works — chilling words indeed — about the way people were killed like flies in the name of the religious identity in 1947-48.

The next chapter, ‘Meeting Again’, begins with the partition. With Amrita Pritam’s moving words on the mayhem created during the partition then goes on to the present which has been rendered unsafe by a number of factors including the incorporation of hate material against minorities in our text books. The message is clear: we began with hatred enacted during the partition and then make the point that we are sowing the seeds of further mayhem even now.

Besides Sufi saints, who are part of nearly all the chapters in one way or the other, the author also reveals his astonishing love of Urdu literature. In Chapter 6, ‘Lovers Heart’, the unique device of framing the discussion of Mir’s classical ghazal with the history of the Mughals and their capital of Shahjahanabad. The figures from that imperial past, the Princess Jahanara, Shahjahan’s daughter, Dara Shikoh and a number of others are conjured up to provide a background into the plaintive tone of Mir’s ghazals.

But in this chapter history is so central that we go back to the even earlier times of the Delhi sultanate and end on Raza Rumi going “to face the real twenty-first century Delhi” (p. 151). But he never does face it as other travellers do. He is too erudite to write something like a simple travelogue describing sights and sounds and the here-and-now. This technique makes him delve deep into the past (‘The Chosen Spirits’) in which the focus is Sarmad and Dara Shikoh and the chapter after that (‘Those who stayed’) in which luminaries like Hakim Ajmal Khan are remembered. These memories frame his own bantering relationship with Farzana who becomes Zaara to his Veer. But this Farzana, a would-be modern Indian Muslim girl, ends up wrapped up against her will in a top-to-toe veil, in a marriage which proves the negation of her dreams. Such are the ironies of life in South Asia.

Being a social history the book cannot ignore cuisine. But this history is expressed through the aroma of savouries of Old Delhi from the street behind the Badshahi Mosque and not mere narratives about who cooked what and ate what.

So Chapter 9 (‘Centuries of flavour’) contain references to such landmark items as chaat, Ram Laddoos and parathas. Architecture too is covered with astonishing references to both ancient and British architecture, which have made Delhi as distinctive as it is.

One iconic figure of Delhi is the poet Ghalib, arguably the greatest poet of the Urdu language, and also a man of his times and yet transcending his time. The chapter entitled ‘Ghalib’s Delhi’ (No. 12) also contains a history of Urdu poetry which culminates in a discussion of Ghalib who is built up as the pinnacle of poetic achievement.

The last two chapters focus upon modern Indian intellectuals and activists and we get a feeling of future hopes for life moving on in this part of the world despite all that keeps it back — the hatred, the violence, the nationalism, the threat of war, the antagonistic states and groups and so on. But the book ends on an ambivalent note: “Forgetting is a fantasy that could easily reincarnate into a haunting dream” (p. 315). We South Asians do not preserve our heritage and that is a great danger because then we do not know what to value and preserve.

Every chapter has notes and a bibliography after it. Moreover, there is a list of books, an annotated bibliography, in the end which points to further reading. But then the whole book is full of references to so many sources in Urdu, English and Persian (translations) that its scholarly worth is beyond question. To sum up, Raza Rumi should be congratulated for having produced an entertaining social history of north Indian Muslim civilisation centred around the evocative symbol of Delhi.