The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 3, 2002

Sifting history’s changing ‘facts’
Harbans Singh

The Present in Delhi’s Pasts
by Sunil Kumar. Three Essays. Pages I+131. Rs 140.

The Present in Delhi’s PastsA refreshing book containing essays which are not just about old monuments and villages in New Delhi but an inward journey in the collective responses of a society to events of the past, periodically reinterpreted and reinvented to justify the present. The author, Sunil Kumar, a teacher in Delhi University, has investigated through these essays the medieval history of some of the sites and has traced the gradual changes that have occurred over the years, each one of them providing an insight into the motives of the builders, the compulsions of the times and the efforts of the present to reinvent the myths to mould the past.

The author says that since in the past the history of Delhi and that of India was inextricably intertwined, many of the places of Delhi have seen continuous human habitation for over a century and have "complex histories of demographic changes, shifting political associations and ideological formations." While conceding that history textbooks are subjects of debate and revision and that at times ideologues and globalisation threaten the pluralistic culture of the country, he warns the modern reader looking for "simple, linear correlations between the past and the present to legitimate narrow, presentist interests" would not only be embarrassing but dangerous, too. He professes to attempt to face the larger "conundrum of how we need to face our pasts without erasing it."


The essay "Qutub and modern memory" gives a scholarly insight into the Qutub Minar and the nearby mosque, now in ruins, which has transcended time but producing devastating results. The transition of the place Masjid-i-Jami from being Qubbat al-Islam (sanctuary of Islam) to Quawwat al-Islam (the might of Islam) is educative, though so much has changed that his scholarly attempt is likely to remain an intellectual exercise for bookworms. Moreover, despite his being able to convince the academic minded about the competitive nature of the early representatives of Islam in India in destroying Hindu temples, the fact remains that Islam does have to answer for destroying the existing civilisations, heritage and symbols wherever it went. This is an accusation hurled by not only the likes of Sir Vidya Naipaul but also by the collective consciousness of those who escaped annihilation as seen in much of Islamic lands. Therefore, among Hindus there is always a small nook for resentment, historians like Sunil Kumar notwithstanding. The essay on Hauz Rani is both interesting and poignant and is perhaps an apt commentary on man’s attempt to attain immortality and the irony of the fate that awaits such efforts. In the case of Hauz Rani not only the facts of history have changed to suit the living but modern urban planning, manned by ignorant and prejudiced minds, has contrived to make a parody of the meaning and context of secularism. The essay on the past of Saidaljab village belongs to the same genre, though here he explores the human consciousness which finds it "extremely disconcerting to accept that our religious faith, or things which we regard as sacred and holy, had only an immediate history." This explains how and why the "facts" of history keep changing along with the demography of the place. This, while creating a huge distance between Sayyid al-Hujjab and the village of Saidaljab has also "erased the complex history of movement and resettlement of people over centuries in a small village in Delhi."

However, it must be said that the book can make a reader rethink even if it is no simple task to iron out the creases in the long and complex history of Delhi. It is worth the effort since, as the author says, "The Qutub stands as an icon, encapsulating the trauma of 1947 and acting as a historical exoneration for the acts of December 1992." This is all the more important since a number of historians of medieval India have been providing "proof" and "evidence" in justification of the transition of a place of congregation and piety as a symbol of power, thus simplifying the multi-layered history of the mosque and its adjacent minar.