22nd September 2013
Published in DNA
Raza Rumi is a Pakistan-based media-commentator, editor, policy-analyst and author. His recent book Delhi By Heart is a first — a long detailed account of Delhi of the past and the present from a traveller from across the border. Garga Chatterjee speaks to the author who produced this unique narrative — about his work, his book and his projects.
Who is the traveller in this book — a Pakistani in Delhi, a west Punjabi in a fairly Punjabi town, or a Pakistani Muslim visiting the city where many of the myths and grandeur of Hindustani Islam are set in practice?
This is a rather existential question. I am a follower of Bulleh Shah, the Punjabi mystic whose famous line encapsulates this identity dilemma: “Bulleh ki jaana mein kaun” (I know not who I am). The traveller is a mix of all what you identify and perhaps a little more. Essentially, a student of history confused by the present.
What prompted you to actually write a book about Delhi? Why Delhi?
I have to confess that the elements of my own identity were found aplenty in Delhi. How could the lanes and relics of a city where great poetry was composed and flourished not move a lover of Urdu poetry? A follower of the Sufi tariqa (way) will most definitely will be inspired by the shrines of the city. Delhi clicked the day I arrived in 2005 and it turned into a subject for a book, rather unintentionally. It is also a homage to my grandmother and another aunt who wanted to visit the ‘other’ side but died with that longing. The Punjabi connection helps. Too much of Lahore in the imagination and that also makes you comfortable about the subject.
Did you feel any self-censorship in putting out certain things in Delhi — as in, where you sometimes suppressed certain pictures not so rosy?
Censorship? No. I did not want my account to be a time-bound narrative therefore avoided documentation of the present. I have been critical with the ugliness that is spread as modernity, the neglect of heritage and the growing cleavage between the residents and the city’s past. As a Pakistani, it would be preposterous to overplay the slums, inadequate sanitation and such other startling features of the metropolis. If anything, visits to Delhi have only reconfirmed that postcolonial states are in dire need of reform and reinventing governance in the twenty first century.
Where is your mental audience? In Delhi or its twin, Lahore?
I understand books are published with audiences in mind but I did not think about that consciously. I think my audience comprises all South Asians who wish to defy borders and reject pernicious trajectories of constructed nationalisms and jingoisms. I also hope that people from other cultures and continents read this book.
What are the present similarities and dissimilarities between Delhi and Lahore?
There are many similarities however, the differences are starker. The sheer scale of Delhi sprawl, its growing public transport network (including the metro) and cosmopolitanism makes is quite different. However, the colonial and layered feel is pretty similar.
What do you feel about the ‘world-class’ Delhi of today, a product of large-scale village and farmland destruction?
Delhi has gobbled up several villages. I have made a reference to this in my book. But urbanisation involves these upheavals. The problems with master planning and adhering to it has also been highlighted. I wish the ‘destruction’ was better managed and negotiated through citizen-oriented planning.
Do you have a future book project in mind, may be on your own city, Lahore?
I have multiple projects buzzing in my head. Of course there will be a book on Lahore but that will have to wait for a more contemporary account as I find lots of stuff on Pakistan is written after nuance, complexity is killed. My Delhi book is also a rebuff to deliberate linearity accorded to the past and present. I think that needs to be challenged. For years I have also been struggling with a novel, which will only be completed if I can reclaim some solitude from my current whirlwind lifestyle.
As a reader, I felt that things Islamicate seemed to have an over-bearing presence, often weeding out peoples and pasts beyond that lens. Why so? Is there a reason for this particular incompleteness?
I think you have a point there. I concede that much of Delhi’s past is looked at from the Muslim lens. But that was my interest and I wanted to remain honest. I was not attempting to produce an exhaustive biography of the city nor a manicured narrative which balances and peddles a preconceived conclusions. Let’s also be honest about the last millennium. Delhi’s court history and physical architecture reflect the influences of its ‘Muslim’ rulers.