Vignettes of a shared culture
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

Delhi By Heart
by Raza Rumi Harper Collins. Pages 322. Rs 399

Raza Rumi focuses on the factors that unifyThis book by Raza Rumi is much more than the "impressions of a Pakistani traveller". In searching Delhi, the author is trying to understand his as well as the identity of millions of other Muslims of the subcontinent. At another level, it is also a lamentation about the disruption of the Muslim narration that has woven itself into the Indian fabric through the numerous Sufi saints who profoundly influenced the life, culture, religion and politics of the subcontinent. It also expresses the sense of loss and incompleteness of those Muslims who opted to migrate to Pakistan for no amount of political power can compensate for the deprivation of spiritual roots.

Like so many others, Rumiís was a Hindu family that was on a pilgrimage to Banaras more than six centuries ago when it interrupted its journey to convert to Islam under the influence of the wandering Ďshamsí Sufis from Multan. We do not know if the authorís ancestors were as influenced by Sufism as he is, but Delhi, also called the "Little Mecca" by the likes of Amir Khusrau, gives him an opportunity to look into the past, the Muslim past of India to be precise.

The process makes him explore the various incarnations of Delhi under the Muslim rule to the syncretism that evolved in the nineteenth century, its destruction by the British and the yearning to reinvigorate only to end in the Partition of the country. He does not dwell much on the pre-Sultnate Delhi. It is true that not much is known of it but even a cursory glance at the construction material of Qutub Minar complex gives enough evidence of what had been destroyed. Unfortunately, there is not a word of regret for it.

Delhi By HeartWhen it comes to the subject that is close to his heart, Rumi is brilliant and the sketchy narration notwithstanding, provides a gripping story of a culture that dominated for close to a thousand years. He succeeds in recreating in considerable detail the lives and influences of the great saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and Hazarat Nizamuddin Auliya. In doing so, the author unwittingly concedes that the great divide that existed in the Hindu society about a thousand years ago provided the Sufis saints and their followers who descended on the plains of Indus and Gangetic basin from Turkey, Persia and Central Asia, an opportunity to convert the masses without coercion.

Wisely, they chose to stay away from the prosperous localities inhabited by caste Hindus, to concentrate on the poor and the outcasts. This explains how most of the Sufi centres came to be located away from the seat of power. The power of the Sultans was often mocked by them and this only enhanced their charisma but then they were aiding the rulers by creating more Muslim subjects in the kingdom.

What remains unsaid by the author, though he admits that Sufism bridged the gap between the Islamic view of God and the Upanishadic concept of oneness, is that the Sufis arrived in the wake of the cataclysmic demolition of Hindu gods, symbols and, consequently, beliefs. If the poor outcasts turned to Sufism because it allowed them to recite the word Ram, many caste Hindus found in it not only a spiritual solace but also a ladder to climb the steps to power like Rajkumar Hardev of Deogarh.

Delhi by Heart is not just a book about Islamic India. It is also about the shared culture, cuisine and consciousness that pervade the subcontinent. Often it is covered under the cloak of suspicion and prejudice but all that it takes to shed off diffidence is a minor note of khayaal or the shared joy of poetry, as Raza Rumi found out in Delhi and many Indians do in Lahore.