Today, this madrassa is locked in time. Young men in topis and ankle-length pyjamas sit on the ground and, with shaking heads, rote-learn Urdu lessons and religious instruction. Like several such madrassas across South Asia, this is a quaint world unaffected by the rapidly changing world. The Fatehpuri Madrassa carries a practice that is increasingly looked upon with fear by non-Muslims who perceive it as a new lexicon of terror and terrorism, and consider it a threat.
The madrassas of Delhi were evolving in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Delhi College was an innovative
example of the re-emphasis of education among Muslims, led by visionaries such as Sayyed Ahmed Khan.
(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.)
I got a copy of your novel, Delhi by Heart, at Lahore Literary Festival in 2014. I read about first 100 pages of that novel back in ’14. I was truly mesmerized by your personal accounts of the city of Delhi. Tonight, I got to visit the shrine of Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din-Aulia in Delhi myself. It was a great spiritually satisfying experience so I feel like thanking you for triggering my interest in this beautiful city of Delhi in the first place.
From this discreet moment in the lives of my imagined distant family, began a generational devotion, like that of countless other families, to khanqahs and shrines. Over the centuries, the temporal powers of sultans and emperors were seen to be getting blurred by the lasting legacy of Sufi saints who came to India…….. Thus, my childhood visions of Delhi were that of mysterious environs with sultans and their lashkars moving about, shrines and tombs warming up to devotees and a grand cultural mingling.
Delhi By Heart: Page 24.
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.