The eclectic intellectual scene in Washington never ceases to surprise me! Within days of my return after a prolonged visit to Dhaka, I received an unusual invitation — a private book reading by Pakistani author Raza Rumi. Rumi’s book, Delhi by heart, is a riveting account of the political, cultural and social history of India’s capital. The narrative is part dialogue with knowledgeable residents and part research delving into the fascinating stories of the kings, royals, Sufi dervishes and common people who lived in the city over many centuries. Rumi’s imaginative wanderings travel as far back as Delhi’s ancient origins, Indraprastha (mentioned in the Mahabharata), and then to the evolution of political and mystical Islam.
In many ways the book is the author’s voyage of self-discovery, tracing his ancestral past to a “foreign” city that “feels like home!” But the quest proved to be costly. It resulted in a death threat followed by an armed attack by the Taliban, who labeled him as a liberal and a traitor.
Let me note that this is not a review of Rumi’s book, but an introspective piece on questions that often arise in my mind about our personal prejudices as South Asians despite our shared history. My reflections, however, have been inspired by Delhi by heart since it brings these questions into focus. It reiterates a much-discussed issue: “What is the common thread that connects people in the subcontinent — is it the architecture, the food, the music, the language, the history? Or is it all of the above?” Navigating through the book’s “labyrinths of history” one may even ask: “Why was it necessary to divide this common legacy into segments known as nations?” Since definitive answers to these questions are difficult to find, Rumi attempts to address them through his personal reflections on Delhi’s “multilayered” past.
For me Delhi by heart also opened up a new vista: that of the “invisible women” of the Mughal courts. Historians show case Noorjahan (Jahangir’s powerful queen) and Mumtaz Mahal, (Shahjahan’s wife and inspiration for the Taj Mahal). But there are two noteworthy Mughal princesses who have been pushed behind the veil of oblivion — Jahanara and Zebunissa. Jahanara, a confidante of her father Shahjahan and brother Dara Shikoh, was greatly influenced by the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose biography she authored. But the fascinating story of her life offers much more — she promoted the arts and was a poet who competed with various men of letters of her time. Her treatise Risala-i- Sahibiya provides a picture of the literary and artistic landscape of seventeenth century Delhi, where the purdah was “diluted” and the “public role” of an unmarried princess in the cultural milieu was recognised.
Unfortunately, her brother, Aurangzeb, who instituted the principles of Wahhabi Islam, undermined Jahanara’s contributions as a prominent female figure in Delhi’s court. Jahanara spent the best years of her life in captivity with her imprisoned father Shahjahan. Today her tomb in Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah in Delhi bears silent testimony to her liberal Islamic beliefs.
According to Delhi by heart, the greater enigma is Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunissa, who was also a Sufi and a poet in her own right. Well educated in the arts, languages, sciences and astronomy, Zebunissa pursued her artistic interests in her private durbar. It was rumoured that she had a string of admirers who were tolerated by the orthodox Aurangzeb. Because of her father’s dislike for poetry, her verses were posthumously published under the pen name “Diwan-i-Makhfi” — makhfi meaning “the hidden one”..
Princess Zebunissa’s strong presence in Aurangzeb’s court remains a mystery. Why did an Islamic fanatic who had withdrawn royal patronage for the arts and music allow his daughter the freedom to participate in literary and cultural events? Was it paternal love? Or did Aurangzeb, like many Muslim leaders of current times, use Islam only as a political weapon? A weapon that allowed him to behead his liberal brother Dara Shikoh as an apostate. A weapon that he used to incarcerate his father accusing him of deviating from the strict principles of Islam. Were these merely political actions for usurping the throne or were they founded on deep-rooted religious beliefs? We may never know. But what we know is that Zebunissa was imprisoned for the last 20 years of her life. Aurangzeb’s wrath fell on his daughter not for the differences of her religious views but because of her sympathy for her brother Akbar who rebelled against his father.
In his book Rumi regrets that he found no tangible evidence of Zebunissa’s legacy in Delhi. One can only speculate that the powerful propaganda machinery of Aurangzeb suppressed the historical narrative of this iconic woman whose inclusive secular views were an antithesis to the intolerant puritanical beliefs of her father. Consequently, a woman who could have been an inspiration to the many oppressed women in the subcontinent has been lost to posterity!