Delhi, an Enduring Feast
By Dr Syed Amir
After the partition of India and the emergence of Pakistan as a sovereign state in 1947, a spirit of friendship and collegiality exited for a while among poets, writers, and intellectuals in both countries, who had known each other since pre-independence days. However, it did not endure as draconian travel restrictions, unremitting hostility and severance of trade and cultural ties between the two neighbors gradually eroded all contacts. New generations in both countries grew up unaware of and alienated from their shared cultural heritage. The hostility permeated deeper, seeping into art, literature, and music on both sides of the border. School syllabuses in Pakistan were designed to showcase India as an enemy with evil designs, and Hindus, their customs and religious practices, as alien and outlandish. Something similar probably happened in reverse in India.
A new book, Delhi by Heart, Impressions of a Pakistani Traveler, written by Raza Rumi, published by Harper-Collins, India, is refreshingly atypical, breaking the conventional paradigms established over half a century. The author has impressive credentials: a well-respected writer and a seasoned journalist who has served on international scholarly bodies both inside and outside Pakistan. He also edits the Friday Times, Lahore, the weekly magazine acclaimed for its independent and nonconformist policies.
The book is hard to define. It belongs to a genre of its own, part a travelogue, part historiography of the bygone Islamic era in Delhi and part treatise on Sufi Islam. Rumi admits that growing up he had imbibed the same negative perceptions of India and its majority inhabitants as are held by many Pakistanis, until he had the opportunity to visit India and meet real people. He views India through a fresh, unbiased prism and is pleased to discover that the country has many desirable features that he likes. While some Pakistanis yearn to become pseudo-Arabs, in reality no two countries share as much culture, language and history as do India and Pakistan. Rumi recounts an insightful experience when he approached a gardener in Delhi to ask for directions, and then out of curiosity enquired about the names of certain trees he recognized. To his surprise he learnt that their names in Delhi were no different than those he knew in Lahore.
Ernest Hemingway had characterized Paris as A Moveable Feast. Delhi with it vast archeological riches can be described as An Enduring Feast. Almost a decade ago, I visited the city and Mehrauli; the latter then used to be a separate township but has since been subsumed by the expanding metropolis. I was impressed with its vast archeological wealth, comprising crumbling mausoleums, ruins of ancient mosques and relics of imperial mansions, testimony to the ephemeral nature of power and glory. The last two Mughal kings, Akbar Shah II and Bahadur Shah Zafar, pale shadows of their forbears, used to spend summer’s rainy months at Mehrauli. The town is the locus of the annual flower show known as Phool Waalon Ki Sair, first started in the reign of Akbar Shah. The festival, an embodiment of Hindu-Muslim unity, was disrupted by the turmoil of partition, but was revived in 1962 at the intervention of Prime Minister Nehru.
Rumi provides a superb disquisition of the historical ruins of Mehrauli and traces their background and provenance. Three mighty Sultans of Delhi who ruled in the Middle Ages, Shams uddin Altutmish, Ghiyas uddin Balban and Alauddin Khilji are buried in Mehrauli, their once-magnificent tombs now neglected, and invaded by encroaching wild bushes. The grave of the only female ruler of the slave dynasty in the medieval times, Razia Sultana Begum, who ruled for just four years ( 1236 to 1240), is not in Mehrauli. She lies buried in some narrow alleys in old Delhi in an unmarked grave not frequented by tourists. Among the more recent ruins in Mehrauli are the remains of a summer palace of the last Mughal king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, that is now home of wild goats, swamped by bushes and defaced by graffiti.
The author has transparent tender feelings for Sufi Islam and the Sufi saints of India, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Bakhtiar Kaki and the Persian mystic and Sufi, Sarmad, executed in Delhi in 1661 by Aurangzeb for crimes of heresy and support of the fallen Prince, Dara Shikoh . The story of Hardev, an eccentric Hindu prince of Deogarh in Southern India, narrated in the book is fascinating. Initially, attracted by the lore of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, he came to Delhi to see him. Charmed by the Sufi saint, he eventually became a Muslim and spent many years at the Khanqah in Delhi.
Excerpts from Hardev’s book, Chahal Rosa, included by the author, provide insights into the daily interactions of Nizamuddin Auliya with his devotees, and the spiritual guidance he administered them. Significantly, the venerable saint had the prescience some eight centuries ago to instruct Amir Khusrau to write the children’s book in Hindi, instead of Persian, so that ordinary people could follow it. He tendered a similar sage advice to Hindu and Muslim musicians, advising them to render their songs in Hindavi so that the Indian masses could appreciate them.
The Sufi school of thought exercised a powerful influence on the religious practices in Muslim-ruled India. Both Dara Shikoh and his favorite sister, Princess Jahanara, the scholarly and beautiful daughter of Shah Jahan, grew up under the influence of Qadri Sufi, Mian Mir in Lahore. The princess revered Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi by whose side she chose to be buried. Jahanara Begum nearly died in 1664 when she was thirty years old from severe burns sustained as her clothes doused by perfumes caught fire during a celebration. Shah Jahan personally nursed her beloved daughter to full health. The princess was so overwhelmed with gratitude that her life was spared and she traveled to Ajmer to visit the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti to offer her personal thanks.
The book provides an excellent account of Prince Dara Shikoh’s scholarly interest in the study of the Hindu religion and philosophy, and his rendition of Hindu religious texts into Persian. He was a prolific author and the earliest exponent of inter-faith harmony and dialog. His studies persuaded him to propose that the Islamic Sufi concepts and Hindu mysticism philosophy were similar or identical. Some of these ideas are incorporated in his famous book, Majma-ul-Bahrain (Mingling of Two Oceans). These revolutionary views, explicated years ahead of their time, ultimately cost him his life.
Delhi by Heart, the first book of Raza Rumi, is highly engaging and a joy to read. Interestingly, it has no unified theme or premise to promote, but flows naturally and seamlessly from one topic to the next. The topics range from serious medieval and contemporary history to observations on the lives of ordinary working people in Delhi, their joys and sorrows. It is laden with enthralling historic and biographic information that must have required months of painstaking research. The only flaw I found is the lack of an index at the end which makes it difficult to refer back to people and places mentioned in the text. Most importantly, the book reveals Rumi as an unbiased writer, with an open mind that is not besmirched by preformed ideas or deeply ingrained prejudices.