Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Column - Delhi by the Book

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Delhi by the Book

A Pakistani blogger-author is writing a travelogue on Delhi.

[Text by Lahore-based Raza Rumi; picture of the author at Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Writing about the textbook enemy, the ‘other’, is but a daunting task. Facing the grandiose Humayun’s tomb on a chilly January morning in early 2008, I decided to write a book on Delhi.

It was not before I had visited the ancient city that I knew what it symbolised. In Pakistan, we were influenced by the glories of Lahore, my beloved city. Reconstructed histories had kept Delhi invisible. The seat of the Sultans, Mughals and the Raj, precursor of the modern united India and originator of the Indo-Islamic civilization was a mere phantom, best ignored.

Over several visits to Delhi, I realised that invisibility was also a shared curse. A good number of Delhi wallas I met, had no clue where they lived or crossed the streets. Erasure, blank spaces in textbooks had rendered their own city a mythical other-world existing only in erudite books, rare cultural soirees and among the fading memories of old-Delhi.

When I looked for the house where Urdu’s legendary poet Mir Taqi Mir lived, no one knows it. Those living in Hauz Khas are unaware of what it was. There are thousands, perhaps more, who have never visited Nizamuddin Bastee let alone the dargah there. Tracing history through books resembles a two-dimensional vision. Lived histories add other dimensions to the inner kaleidoscope. But there are so few who can help me.

I am pained when I am taken to the tomb of India’s first female ruler Razia Sultana (1236 - 1240). Only centuries later another woman Indira Gandhi was to rule the Centre. Razia’s grave languishes on an abandoned, filthy cul-de-sac. Many don’t care. I wonder, should I?

As I have ventured out to write, the enormity of Delhi — the idea — haunts me. Where do I start? The layered construction of Indian, and Muslim identities in the subcontinent emanate from the ridges and Hades of Delhi. The saints buried under its red-brown earth impacted the society and culture for times to come. Now viewed as a global ‘problem’, the Muslims augmented the diversity of an already wondrous India.

What is known as the [north] Indian cuisine, albeit of the non-vegetarian variety, is a Muslim innovation and so are tunes of Hindustani, classical music, the strings of a sitar and the rhythms of tabla. Ten centuries of cultural hybridization resulted in Urdu and current day Hindustani the idiom for northern India and the much-celebrated Bollywood.

Delhi’s history also underwrites the secular tradition. Save the unsavoury and brief spells of intolerance, governance was largely a secular feat. Whilst Europe was grappling with intra-Christianity fissures, Akbar was holding inter-faith dialogues and Dara Shikoh in his Delhi library was translating the Bible and the Upanishads in Persian.

What motivates me to write? Lacking an appropriate label, a catchy boxed tag such as a historian or a sociologist, what is my locus standi? Irritated, I ignore the little demons with a single sentence: Delhi belongs to me as well. As a ‘Pakistani-South Asian’ Muslim, I share Delhi’s past and its present too. Visas and borders obfuscate my affinities; shared histories are challenged by communalists and extremists. And, I write a book to cross boundaries and tread zones that officialdom cannot appropriate.

Who said writing was not a liberating experience. What could be a better way to subvert the imposed hostilities and jingoisms — just write?

Undaunted, I am still spinning my Delhi yarn.

[This piece was earlier published in Jahane Rumi]


Sanaullah Majeed said...

A Pakistani writing a travelogue on Delhi? Why can't he not write on his beloved country? Again, not much to tell about the neighbour, the talibans rule all, so it seems. And you Soofi, are you going to write on Pakistan? Are we reversing roles here? You seem awfully drawn to Pakistanis and your name "Soofi", to suggest you are a compilation of Hindu (Mayank)Austen (christian) Soofi (Muslim). Am a bit confused? LOL. Anyway, light humour. Good luck to all

Anonymous said...

I think calling oneself Mayank Austen Soofi when one is actually a Mayank Gupta or a Mayank Chaddha makes as much sense as professing oneself to be ein berliner. And as for the people of Pakistan, they'd do better to write stuff on their own country - theirs is the one with the more negative PR any day. I mean, they got what they asked for, packed up and left, and yet we bother with them. Why?

Shaheen Sultan Dhanji said...

Am most happy to know, that, Raza Rumi is writing a book! Am sure with his vision and intelligence, it shall be a collector for all..mine for sure!

Pakistan is a country full of diversity and much colour. The propaganda one wishes to follow is their prerogative, but, please do not generalise a few negative publicity to equate the entire nation as negative!

Jiye Raza Rumi ! Looking forward to reading his book.

Mayank, dear, thanks for posting!


ramesh_lalwani said...

Why should we feel offended if a Pakistani writes about our city.We always applaud Europeans or Americans when they write about our city.I for one enjoy reading comment on our people,life on Delhi roads and monuments.I think Mayank is doing a good job.I look forward to his blogs every night.
Good wishes to you Raza.I look forward your book.Yes one needs lot of courage to reach Sultana Razia's tomb.I went there first time recently after more than 50 years in Delhi.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, a traveler's perspective of things presents a more accurate analysis, without which counseling would be rendered totally ineffective.

On a trip to Manali one summer, I realised that the locals were totally unmoved and perhaps even oblivious to the beauty that surrounded them.

Love for one's country, patriotism - as jingoism would have it - falls flat as a desire for real estate...unless accompanied by a respect for the fellow citizen and the law of the land and of course objectivity.

Much as I hate to say it, Delhi, today, does'nt make the grade.

Some of the more accurate articles, I've read on Indian cities, were penned by foreigners, who incidentally are far less 'Indian' than Raza Rumi.

As for Soofi, the guy is throwback to the 'jhultangiya' of yore, the mundane mysticism in his works is unmistakable. his pen seems to be in perfect sync with his soul and attempts to delve deeper into his being, to explore the hues of his personal complexities that sometimes tie him down into identifying people as Hindus and Pakistanis or Muslims and Dalits.

All in all, a perfect prospect for an asylum in the next couple of decades.