Pankaj K Deo
Ironically, when Rana Safvi’s new book, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi arrived for review, Delhi was shrouded in a massive blanket of yellowish smog. The city seemed to be on the brink of apocalypse. When its inhabitants are gasping for pure air, reading the Persian couplet, “Agar Firdaus bar ru-e zamin ast, Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hami ast” in her book could only accentuate the tragic irony of the situation. These lines of verse inscribed on the Diwan-e-Khaas, at the Red Fort in Delhi, capture the very essence of the paradise imagery that underlies the Mughal architecture.
The book is the last one of her Where Stones Speak trilogy and focuses on the history of Shajahanabad, inarguably the most beautiful one among the seven cities that flourished in Delhi. As one delves into the book, one indeed gets transported to a city that was once considered the paradise on this earth.
One needs to understand here that Agra was the first capital of the Mughal Empire. The Mughals did visit Delhi, but they didn’t find it suitable to settle down. It was Shah Jahan who decided to shift his capital from Agra to Old Delhi in the 17th century. The new capital city he founded came to be known as Shahjahanabad and its imperial house, the Qila-e Mubarak, as the Red Fort. As for Shah Jahan’s reasons to shift the capital, Safvi writes: “Two factors influenced his decision to shift his capital from Agra: one was that the Agra fort, from where his father and grandfather had ruled, was too small for his needs, and the other was the unsuitability of the narrow lanes and ravines of Agra for his ceremonial processions.”
As one peruses the pages of Safvi’s book, one gets transported back in time to the periods of Shah Jahan and later Mughals. The reader witnesses the evolution of a city and its distinct culture and cuisine, with Qila-e-Mubarak or the Red Fort as its epicentre. Those who came from places afar to dwell in the city brought with them their multifarious traditions, their faith, their language and their cuisine.
Safvi’s tome brings to its readers hitherto unknown tales of Shahjahanabad and its lanes and bylanes, in her inimitable style. The narrative she weaves around Shahjahanabad and its monuments is spiced with many anecdotes and exquisite Urdu couplets that offer trenchant comments on this city’s glorious past and its present condition. There are chapters dedicated to Kooche, Katre and Mohalle of Shahjahanabad, as well as its food and its beautiful gardens.
A raconteur par excellence, Safvi chronicles the history of Shahjahanabad from the laying down of the foundation stone of the Red Fort in 1639 to the exile of Bahadur Shah Zafar due to his role in 1857 war against the British rule.
As you flip through its pages not only the city of Shahjahanabad but also its noble occupants, who once walked, dressed in all their finery due to their social status, come alive. The author even takes you to their graves where they now lie buried — neglected and forgotten. Many such historical somebodies seem to strike a conversation with as you progress from page to page, such is her style of narration.
The paradisiacal imagery is a recurring theme in the Mughal architecture. Shah Jahan put his official seal on the theme by getting the Persian couplet inscribed in the Diwan-i-Khas of the Red fort in Delhi. Safvi also investigates the history behind the famous Persian couplet, generally attributed to Amir Khusrau, and how it came to be inscribed on the wall of the hall of special audience in the Red Fort.
A high degree of tolerance for a contrarian view seems to have existed at that time since Mirza Ghalib who lived in the twilight of the Mughal empire, could get away with writing: “Hum ko maalum hai jannat ki haqiqat lekin dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib ye khayal achchha hai.”
The narrative at places does seem to lack cohesiveness, but that is understandable when an author has to coalesce so many disparate pieces of history lying strewn in every nook and cranny of a hoary city like Delhi.
In order to tempt the readers to try out the cuisine that Shajahanabad is famous for, the author also provides authentic recipes of various dishes, which would perhaps help foodies to embark on a culinary journey to the medieval age.
A book to be bought and preserved by all those who love Delhi, its culture and its cuisine.
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