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Posted at: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM; last updated: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM (IST)

Delhi lost in tumult

Pankaj K Deo

Like Rome, Delhi, too, was not built in a day, and the hoary city has developed a culture that is an accretion of several layers of its history. As a long-time capital, the city has been the centre of artistic and cultural confluence. It is this cultural confluence that Rana Safvi seeks to explore in her latest tome, City of My Heart, which comprises translations of four Urdu texts that document the life of Delhi in the tumultuous phase of the 19th century before and after the uprising of 1857.

In these translated books, the inhabitants of Delhi take pride in the city’s heritage and lament its loss. As Dilli ka Aakhiri Deedar or The Last Glimpse of Delhi by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlivi, which is one of the translated texts in this collection, says: “Its life blood was its majesty and dignity, and it has seen the many hues of life from Raja Bharat to the Timurid Kings.”

India was in a state of transition in the 19th century, as the old order was yielding place for the new. The four Urdu texts present vivid accounts of that phase of transition in multiple voices defined by age, gender, religion, race, class, descent and language, though Delhi, the city, remains the main protagonist. Multiple characters crisscross these narratives bringing a whole panoply of political, social and economic changes into focus. Most characters tell their own stories in their own medium, full of tehzeeb or etiquette, which cannot be translated, and the translator rightly keeps the original words.

The biggest political change was that not only had the Mughals ceased to be the real rulers of India but also that Delhi had ceased to be the real capital city in the 19th century. The British had shifted the centre of power to Calcutta. Delhi was under siege — politically, socially and economically — when the revolt of 1857 broke out. Dehlivi’s points out in The Last Glimpse of Delhi: “The year 1857 rang the death knell for the old way of life when monarchy breathed its last in the lap of Bahadur Shah and the lamp of Timur was extinguished forever.” Although these books mostly narrate the stories in third person, there are plenty of first-person accounts that enliven the narrative. One such character is Nani Hajjan who mesmerizes the reader by telling how ‘Phoolwalon ki Sair’ was celebrated during Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time. Her narration is so engrossing that one feels transported to Mehrauli in the 19th century and to be playfully singing, Atkan batkan dahi chatokan, like one of the children in the royal entourage. 

There are moments when the reader can feel the tragedy, though helplessly, which befell the people living in that era. One can only empathise and lament the pitiable condition when one finds a letter in the collection written by the exiled Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah to the then Prince of Wales, who later became King George V. One can see the last Mughal Emperor’s Timurid pride biting dust when he writes, “As for disrespect, there is none if a defeated brother asks a favour of a victorious one.” One needs a sympathetic heart to understand the complexities of that life that these narratives bring to light.

The narratives present a cornucopia of information on the life and culture in 19th-century Delhi, with the Red Fort as its epicenter. However, the view becomes a little monochromatic as the collection has books written by Muslim authors only. It would have been interesting to read an account of 19th century Delhi by a non-Muslim Urdu writer as well in such a collection since Urdu was then used alike by both Hindus and Muslims. All in all, the book presents captivating narratives and is a must-read for all those who love Delhi’s culture and heritage.

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