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A review of Delhi by Heart by Abdul Majeed Abid (The News on Sunday)

‘Delhi by heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller’ is the first book written by columnist and public intellectual, Raza Rumi. It is a genre-defying work — it is a travelogue and a biography, with frequent forays into history and geography.

Above all, it is a love story masquerading as a travelogue.

The author’s first love, that is the city of Lahore, lurks behind the shadow of magnificent and historic rival, Delhi, throughout the book like a jealous firstborn.

The opening chapter of the book focuses on Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s Khankah and the basti that encircles the Khankah. Here, Rumi’s prose is floral, reminiscent of master storytellers of Urdu.

The reader is introduced to Sadia Dehalvi, who is a gracious host and guide regarding the Sufis of Delhi. She personifies the spirit of Delhi more than anyone else in the book.

The author frequently mentions references to Pakistan’s hate-filled textbooks that breed hatred for our neighbours. He also mentions his encounters with Khushwant Singh, Pran Nevile and Amrita Pretam. All these three people adored Lahore as much or more than Rumi but had to spend significant parts of their lives away from it. There are reflections of the inexplicable and undocumented agonies and trauma of Partition in the accounts of these people and others who find a place in the book.

Partition, though, was not the only occasion when violence engulfed Delhi — as the relation of the city to incidents of violence is centuries old. Despite this trauma, the city is alive and well. As the author notes, “Delhi is not daunted. Its expanse and spirit copes with tremors well. The phoenix has no choice but to rise again.”

History, it is said, is written by the victors. In both India and Pakistan, textbooks of history have been manipulated to conform to the ruling establishment’s narrative. The process was kick started in Pakistan by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a fact that the author overlooks and lays the blame on General Zia. General Zia usurped power in a coup d’état and merely accelerated the downward spiral of distortion of history.

In India, hyper nationalist narrative was introduced in textbooks by the BJP governments in the last two decades.

While Pakistan’s textbooks have been tailored to ‘Islamise’ the narrative, the Indian hawks have tried to erase any achievement that owes its credit to Muslim rulers. Case in point being the assertion that the three stars of Islamic Civilisation in India, Taj Mahal, Qutab Minar and Red Fort, were actually designed and commissioned by Hindus. This distortion is almost as egregious as the lie that Pakistan came into being at the time of Mohammad Bin Qasim’s arrival on the shores of Sindh.

Even Bangladesh has made similar omissions from its textbooks.

It appears that both Pakistan and India drew inspiration from George Orwell’s quote, that “He who controls the past controls the future. He, who controls the present, controls the past”.

The author takes us through the architectural evolution, which was undertaken by Muslim rulers through the history of Delhi, evident in form of tombs and other historical buildings. Some parts of this cultural heritage were vandalised and destroyed by the British Raj, following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

At times, Rumi deplores the neglect shown by people of subcontinent to their native history. He is enchanted by the legendary lore of love between Amir Khusrau and Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrau is credited with pioneering the art of qawwali and development of a new language that became Urdu, among other things.

The author is particularly attracted to memorials of historical figures who spent their lives in both his old love, Lahore, and new love, Delhi — Dara Shikoh, Sarmad Shaheed, Princess Zebunnisa and others.

A dominant thread that is woven throughout the book is the state of affairs of Indian Muslims. They have been forced to live in ghettos and the textbooks spew hatred toward the Muslim minority. During one visit to Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, Rumi overheards a sermon from the nearby mosque that is similar to the sermons in Pakistan, in preaching a regressive worldview and hardcore conservatism. This attitude hasn’t helped the Muslim minority much. One Muslim witness of the Gujarat Massacre that the author meets doesn’t blame Hindutva or Modi for the trouble rather resorts to a polemic on divine justice.

It should be noted that more than 55 per cent of Indian Muslims live below the poverty line while 45 per cent of them are illiterate, compared to 36 per cent national average. All this in the land where 19th century reformists, including Sir Syed Ahmed, Deputy Nazir Ahmed and Syed Ameer Ali grew up.

The book is a must read for prospective travellers to Delhi and fans of South Asian history. It is bound to increase the interest of future travellers to Delhi from across the border and even those who reside in India.