Interview by Shivani Mohan (The Caravan Daily)
Delhi by Heart — Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller, published by HarperCollins, holds forth Raza Rumi’s perspective on the Indian capital; and he hopes it will make a small contribution towards working out an Indo-Pak peace process to a Delhiite, Delhi by Heart — Impressions of a Pakistani Travelleropens up a new vista to his own city, seen through the prism of a Pakistani traveller: a touching yet balanced view of the historic capital, treated with the inimitable delight of discovery, textured with brilliant extracts and poetry pertaining to the ancient city and tempered with the author’s own inherent positivity and warmth.
Raza Rumi’s in-depth research into Delhi’s abundant monuments and the forgotten, sepia-toned sagas attached to them, makes for a compelling read. Those who played major roles in the city’s genesis slowly come alive with their strengths and idiosyncracies: the Mughal rulers and personalities ShahJahan, Jahanara, Dara Shikoh, Ajmal Khan, Sarmad and many more. Equally interesting are Raza’s interactions with random Delhiites ranging from Khushwant Singh to SadiaDehlvi, JNU students and other colourful characters such as Bunty Singh, brother of Sunny Singh and Goldie Singh!
Here is a free-wheeling chat with Raza Rumi:
How did the idea of this book come about?
I have been coming to Delhi on work since 2005. I had imagined it was an inaccessible, hostile territory. But when you come here, you realise it is very similar to Lahore — very green, very
Mughal. It is a city which is very historical, with great architectural presence, and almost a theatrical dimension, a monument at every corner. There is colonial Delhi, modern Delhi, and a post-modern Delhi.
What have been your most pleasant discoveries about Delhi? The most disturbing ones?
The pleasant discoveries are largely historical in nature and the layers of history that one interacts with in Delhi. The more disturbing part is the disconnect which many inhabitants feel with the city they live in. I think I quoted PawanVerma on this issue, who says, “Educated people who live in HauzKhas have no idea what the monument which gives their colony its name is. The same kind of historical lethargy afflicts most of those who live in and around Masjid Moth, ChiragDilli, Siri or HazratNizamuddin.” I agree with him.
Do you ever feel any hostility in India? Do you ever feel awkward and unsafe?
Not really. Awkward I do feel, when I have to either answer too many questions about Pakistan and also hear about how little an average Indian knows about the country. The best was: “Do you have restaurants in Pakistan?”
Your book has some fabulous extracts, poetry, translations. Do you think our common literature and arts can rescue India and Pakistan from a dead end? Where do exchanges like Aman Ki Asha (AKA) stand today?
Literature, art and poetry are vital ingredients of any civilisation. The various strands of our shared past continue. Perhaps music is the best example.
Bollywood sort of unites people and the influence of Pakistani artists cannot be missed in shaping the new, post-RD Burman phase of Bollywood music. Sport plays a similar role, though competitiveness is also a source of nationalistic pride. AKA is a great initiative and the concept is fantastic. At least, it provides some space within the confines of corporate jingoism-selling media on both sides, for countering the narrative.
You make mention of how history was rewritten in textbooks in Pakistan and that led to anti-India sentiments. Can that damage be undone?
There are vibrant citizen movements across the country which have time and again highlighted that distortions in textbooks and official histories should be countered. Luckily, in Pakistan, the central monopoly over setting the curricula was broken through the 18th constitutional amendment in 2010. Now, provinces can set their own curricula and some have already made changes. However, there is a long way to go.
How does Pakistani youth today perceive India: a kitschy Bollywoodian entity, an economic giant or a bully?
India is the regional elephant. For some, it is the dream world of Bollywood; for others, the rituals-obsessed households of TV soaps. However, most Pakistanis are convinced that India has wronged the Kashmiris. So you can see it is all rather complex and jumbled up. There is love-hate but most Pakistanis — as surveys show—want a normal peaceful coexistence with India.
We have seen the Internet generation being more regressive and extremist in some ways. But, at the same time, we have made great friends across the border through Twitter. So is social media a boon or bane?
I think keeping trolls, hate and abuse aside, social media is recording the revolution of our times. There is unprecedented freedom to express and the state-created barriers between the peoples of India and Pakistan have been seriously challenged. Overall, this is a positive development and an opportunity for citizen action has arisen.
I feel your heightened sensibility must have something to do with the women who influenced you, as you’ve written in the book about your grandmother and her sister, and many remarkable women. Tell us about it?
(Laughs) I didn’t think of that. Indeed, the oral histories related by women are more humanistic than men. The latter are conditioned to aspire for and exercise power. Women, on the other hand, are concerned about the everydayness, the minutiae of life. Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate the ‘enemy’ was through a non-jingositic lens, best provided by women.
You left a UN career to pursue your passion. Journalists in Pakistan are doing a commendable job, standing like beacons of hope in a very tough political climate. Do you feel it is worth it?
I think Pakistan has a rich history of resistance as well as civic action. If you note, popular movements have unseated almost all dictators. Today’s Pakistan, despite the challenges, is a noisy, democratic and transforming place where working as a journalist is most exciting.