Glimpses of a Lost Delhi

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    The Revolt of 1857 and the vengeance wrought by the British was a cataclysmic time for Delhi. Everything was changing, and fast. The city was a political hotbed, people had no idea what turn their destiny would take and there was a cultural renaissance reaching its zenith at the time.

    While these aspects of history have been well documented, little attention has been paid to the life and times of the Mughals in the mid-19th century and afterwards, a perspective that looks at these fading royals from the inside. The sun was setting on the Mughal Empire, which was now only a tragic vestige of its glorious past.

    It is this ‘lost’ Delhi that writer and historian Rana Safvi brings alive in her book, City of My Heart: Four Accounts of Love, Loss And Betrayal In Nineteenth-Century Delhi published by Hachette India. The book is a compilation of English translations of four Urdu books based on the accounts of those who witnessed them first-hand.

    It is this ‘lost’ Delhi that writer and historian Rana Safvi brings alive in her book

    The book is almost a prequel and a sequel to Safvi’s previous book Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny, an eyewitness account of the Revolt of 1857 by Zahir Dehlvi, a resident of Delhi at the time. The City of My Heart covers the time just before the revolt and its aftermath.

    The four accounts are Dilli ka Aakhiri Deedar (The Last Glimpse of Delhi) by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi, Bazm-e-Aakhir (The Last Assembly) by Munshi Faizuddin, Qila-i-Mu’alla ki Jhalkiyan (Glimpses of the Exalted Fort) by Arsh Taimuri and a few stories from Begamat ke Aansu (Tears of the Begums) by Khwaja Hasan Nizami.

    The first three accounts offer a vivid description of life inside the Red Fort, grand processions, festivals and rituals, and of intrigue. For example, there is an account of how Diwali was celebrated inside the Red Fort: ‘

    On the third Diya, Badshah is weighed in Gold and Silver …. The Qila is illuminated on all sides. Puffed rice, candy, toys made from the candy, lemon and small clay houses are distributed to everyone by maidservants. At night, mud houses made by the royal children are filled with puffed rice and batashe and lamps lit in front of them.’

    There is also a fascinating list of dishes served at an average meal for the emperor. It describes 26 types of rotis, 24 types of rice dishes and an equal number of curries, kebabs, vegetable dishes and pickles. And this, in a time when the emperor was short of money!

    The Urdu accounts mention 26 types of rotis served in the Red Fort

    The last chapter, Begamat ke Aansu (Tears of the Begums) tells the story of what happened to the rest of the Mughal royal family after Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma. Many became menial workers and drove tongas. There is also a Dickensian tale of four children from the Mughal family sleeping in the freezing cold, sharing a single, torn blanket. There is also a tale of a Mughal prince, Mirza Nasir-ul-Mulk, who was found begging in the streets of Delhi during the British-held Delhi Darbar of 1911.

    There are several instances in the book that almost seem like a critique of today’s India. In Dilli ka Aakhri Deedar, Syed Wazir laments the loss of communal harmony with the advent of the British Raj, stating –

    ‘[Now] the rich look down upon the poor, communal feelings have entered people’s hearts, and there is a divide between us. Hindus and Muslims don’t visit each other anymore and are ready to fight with and kill each other at the slightest provocation.’

    Aghai Begum, a female attendant in the Red Fort, talks of inflation and strife in words very similar to what we read in the newspapers today:

    Everyone is struggling to earn a livelihood and to live a decent life in these expensive times. Earlier, earnings were less but we had more purchasing power. We earned peacefully and ate in peace. Now, there is always some problem or clamour around us. The monsoons are good, the harvests are plenty, the bags are full of grain, yet we starve and face famine.’

    I spoke to writer Rana Safvi, whose Urdu translations, apart from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-i-Ghadar, include Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Asar-us-Sanadid, an account of Delhi’s monuments and environs in pre-colonial times. Safvi talks about the importance and the difficulties in translations, and what these accounts tell us of those times.

    Why do you think, in India, the translation of these non-English texts and first-hand accounts have not been given importance?

    Translations are a very difficult job. First, you have to be good at both languages, especially the language you are going to translate it into, and to know the nuances of the source book. Second, these books are not very paying today, unless you are a very big name and you spend a whole year writing a book or translating a book. But it can’t sustain you. Hence, most people are gravitating towards fiction, as fiction sells much more. That is my personal opinion, especially regarding historical translations. For me, it is a passion, so I can invest my time and money in it. But there are others, especially authors, who are translating fiction, and doing very well.

    But what about historians? One doesn’t find many historians looking at these first-hand accounts or giving them much weightage.

    Most well-known historians are looking at Persian sources, which too are not getting translated as they are time-consuming and you need a passion for it. Most of the professors I know of write papers based on Persian sources. And, as I said before, translation takes a lot of time as you have to get everything correct.

    In fiction, when you are translating, a few differences do not matter, but in a historical translation, if you miss one nuance or translate one word wrong, it can change the entire context. Like in my previous book Dastan-i-Ghadar, there was a mention [in the original Urdu text] that an army platoon arrived from ‘Sapal Meena’. I couldn’t figure out what ‘Sapal Meena’ was and I asked and asked, and wondered what this place was. Eventually, I went to Prof Shamshur Rehman Farooqui [noted Urdu scholar] and he explained that it meant ‘Sappers & Miners’.

    The City of My Heart is an account of people looking at their lost past, which implies a lot of nostalgia. How true do you think these accounts are? Or was it an imagined, perfect past?

    Of course there is a lot of nostalgia but all three accounts [the first three accounts in the book] talk about the same thing. That means there is some kind of concurrence. You have three different people at different times repeating the story. There are more [Urdu] books which I have not included in this. There are around six to seven books, but since translation take a lot of time, I have included only four. But most of these accounts have been corroborated. So while there might be a romantic nostalgia, the basic facts can’t be wrong.

    And for me, I have explained in the preface [of the book] why I translated it, as I wanted to bring out [the facts] as the current [political] narrative is so different from what actually happened then.

    Is there anything from this book that was revelatory to you?

    Most interesting was the story of the rakhi [tied by Hindu woman to Bahadur Shah Zafar] on the Salona festival [as Raksha Bandhan was called] described in the first two accounts and also, for example, when Aghai Begum [the female attendant in the Red Fort] talks in the book, she is describing ‘divide & rule’ without realising what she was talking about. That people understood what was happening, and they also understood it wasn’t like that before.

    For a reader, what do you think is the biggest takeaway from this book?

    The City of My Heart is a peep into a world that was. The Empire is on the decline, the emperor is just notional, yet there is a cultural renaissance, a peak of cultural activity in Delhi. Whether it is poetry, whether it is music, Khayal and Thumri is being developed and so on. There is a cultural zenith that the city is reaching, while the [Mughal] empire is declining.

    But there is also an undercurrent, people don’t know what turn life is going to take. That is captured so beautifully by all the writers. We don’t talk about what happened to all the Mughals; we only talk of Bahadur Shah Zafar, but what happened to his relatives? Begamat ke Aansu describes that.

    There is also a lot of curiosity among people regarding those times, especially nowadays, because when you talk about the Mughals, there is always talk of how they were barbaric, looting, converting people and so on. But when you read this book, you realise that was not the case. People were quite happy. The very first page of Dilli ka Ankhri Deedar says: ’Hum ek doosre ko pyaar se miyaji aur lalaji kehtey they.’ So the biggest takeaway of this book is of a syncretic culture that existed. It was an empire in decline but a culture at its zenith.

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