(Raza Rumi is a Pakistani journalist and political analyst. His book Delhi By Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller released to rave reviews in 2013. It is relevant once again today, at a time when lines of divisiveness are being drawn across borders. When binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are being thrown around in abandon. The following review is by a PhD student at Cornell University, Ritwick Ghosh, and explores the unusual travelogue of a city – Delhi – that strongly impressed a Pakistani traveller.)
When you read about Rumi’s Delhi, it is not the city or its history that stays with you but the euphoria of a writer as he journeys through a childhood dream.
For Rumi, Delhi is its history and – like many old cities – this history can only be found in the dusty alleyways of bazaars, in poems on forgotten shelves, or in the lingering flavours of its old kitchens. The book is simultaneously a clinical biography of a city and an absorbing travelogue laced together by the sincere longing of the author.
How I Rediscovered a Monument Through a Stranger’s Eyes
I grew up in Delhi – only a few kilometres from Mehrauli where the famous Qutub Minar is located. In one chapter, Rumi travels to Mehrauli describing in detail the history of this early settlement of Delhi.
In my tenth grade, I did a class research project on the monument. I remember thinking, as I did my research, what the azaan (call for prayer) might have sounded like from the top of the 120-metre tower. Driving by the nightly lights of the Qutub Minar was an everyday part of my life.
A Khadim at Mehrauli Dargah. (Photo Courtesy: Raza Rumi)
But it took a stranger’s celebration of the monument to remind me that the relevance of the Qutub Minar was not the architectural marvel of the tower itself but the entire world that existed in the Mehrauli area at the time. Much of this old world is now engulfed by cheap wholesale markets selling fresh fruits, vegetables and Chinese water proof watches that float around in plastic buckets. Rumi not only manages to find and lovingly describe these old structures but does extensive research to locate these structures within our knowledge of historical politics.
The Mughal empire, much like the later British dominance in New Delhi, is a contradiction of care and destruction. The early Persian conquests left the city empty of its previous riches but new rulers from Persia settled in Delhi building their own locale far away from their previous home and thereby birthing a new splendour.
For example, a legend like Lutyens who is revered in New Delhi for designing the glorious artery of roads in Central Delhi, actually despised Indian culture, food and aesthetics.
Of Heartwarming Anecdotes and Political Interruptions
There are many moments in the book that stand apart from ubiquitous travel writing available on the Internet.
For example, when meeting Ainee Api, a renowned Urdu poet, Raza’s admiration is palpable. Like many non-English poets in India, Ainee Api lives in the hearts of people and communities scattered all around the world – yet finds little mention in mainstream Indian media. Raza’s genuineness as he first approached her is as visible to her as it is to the reader. This sparks a unique and enduring friendship that makes for stimulating reading.
The book is Rumi’s and fits with Rumi’s interest in politics. Still, there are moments in the book where politics interrupts the story of love. Towards the end, the book attempts an analysis of the political power grab by Hindutva. This is indeed an important topic and in many ways is relevant to a modern study of Delhi – but in a book constantly shifting between travelogue and history, the move left me raw and distracted from the adoration presented earlier.
Nonetheless, politics, history, and religion are Rumi’s interests and his visits to Delhi are relished through these interests.
Does Delhi Not Belong to Rumi Like it Does to You and Me?
The book also raises important questions of identification with physical sites. In some ways the greatest tragedy to the fabric of the Indian Islamic Civilisation was the partition of India and Rumi writes about his journey to (re)discover his own identity and cultural past by exploring the city of Delhi.
This raises questions of who can and cannot claim a connection of identity to ageing towers, shrines, tombs, temples and mosques, roads and administrative buildings. Does the history of Delhi not belong to Raza as it does to someone born in New Delhi? Does an admirer need a qualification?
Delhi’s history took its most recent turn in 1947 when the newly formed sovereign Government of India established it as the nation’s capital – but this also severed a patriotic connection to the city for someone across the border.
My nostalgia for urban history is often directed to Kolkata, which is where my family originates. I found that the writing takes a distanced affinity to contemporary Delhi in a way that I don’t have to struggle to profess my love for Kolkata. (I have never lived in Kolkata much like Rumi has never lived in Delhi.)
While I can pleasantly reminisce Kolkata, the divisions between India and Pakistan make it difficult to express a pure affection and belonging to cities across the border. By denying these political differences any purchase, Rumi inks the book with a fidelity to history, rather than any narrow display of patriotic devotion.
(Ritwick Ghosh is currently doing his PhD in Cornell University on the politics of nature. In his free time, Ritwick enjoys reading and writing creative non-fiction.)