Review: The Dispossessed and the Possessed

Anand Vivek Taneja’s 'Jinneaology' seamlessly links Delhi’s past to its present, and its spirit-life to its modern disenchantments.

Firoz Shah Kotla. Credit: Anand Vivek Kumar

Firoz Shah Kotla. Credit: Anand Vivek Kumar

I grew up with stories about Jinn Mamu – whom we never addressed without the suffix of ‘uncle’, because they were very jalali, or easy to anger. But a mamu is fond of their nieces and nephews and will try and fulfil their desires, and never harm them. That is the spirit that prevails among the jinn-saints of Firoz Shah Kotla, except here they are father figures.

In the Quran, the Jinns are mentioned as very akin to humans, except where humans were made of clay, the Jinns had been created out of smokeless fire and can take on any form they wanted, animal or other. Just as there were good and bad human beings, there were good and bad jinns.

Anand Kumar Taneja <em>Jinneaology: Time, Islam and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi Stanford University Press, 2017

Anand Vivek Taneja
Jinneaology: Time, Islam and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi
Stanford University Press, 2017

Firoz Shah Kotla, the fifth city of Delhi, has a local claim to fame that is neither past majesty nor its Ashokan pillar. It is the resident spirits who grant wishes to their many devotees in and around Delhi. At any time of day, you will find incense sticks, diyas and candles burning in nooks and corners of the Kotla. On Thursdays, those whose wishes have been fulfilled distribute pots of biryani and sweet rice.

It was with great pleasure, anticipation and a sense of trepidation that I started reading Anand Vivek Taneja’s Jinneology: Time, Islam and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi – the trepidation because academics books can be more than a layperson can digest. I was surprised to find the book weaving a story of Delhi as an ancient landscape bound together by saints and jinns, fairies and normal folks, sacred spaces and devotees, the dispossessed and the possessed, the disenchanted and the dispenser of justice, and above all, nameless people who bond together over unspoken woes.

Descent into clay

The opening verse of the book had me hooked:

Kho’e hue jahan ka chehra pehen ke aun
Mitti mn teri utrun tab kya pehen ke aun?

Shall I come wearing the visage of a lost world?
How shall I dress when descending into your clay?

∼ Riyaz Latif

Taneja traces the history of the jinn-saints and links it to the disenchantments of the post-Nehruvian era and the atrocities of the emergency in 1975-77. Many of the persons who came to pray here were from the areas worst affected by eviction, demolition drives and forced sterilisation campaigns of those years: mainly working class Muslims and Dalits. Through oral histories, Taneja traces back the tradition of petitioning the saints and the fascinating story of Laddu Shah, a black marketer turned healer.

This seamless linking of the past and present is the beauty of Jinneology.

On my innumerable visits to the Firoz Shah Kotla, I have seen hundreds of letters written to the jinn saints, but I could never link them to the past. Taneja writes that these petitions in the Tughlaq ruins are reminiscent of shikwa, a Perso-Islamic legal form of addressing one’s complaints to the sovereign, practiced in the Delhi Sultanate.

“The letters written to the jinn-saints enact an intimate sovereignty,” writes Taneja, “A paternalistic government whose justice reaches far beyond the categories of the care imposed by the post-colonial state on its subject population.” That is my own experience too. Those who despair of justice in law courts, or don’t have the wherewithal to fight cases, those whose emotional needs are not taken care of, come to the father-figure that the jinn-saint is and present their shikwa.

Here one needs no money, no caste status or contact in the echelons of the government. The powers that be here treat everyone equally, and they bond in their despair and in their happiness. In a country being threatened by narrow religious and sectarian divides, this free mingling of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, sharing of bread together without worrying about each other’s caste or religion, petitioning jinn-saints together, is heartwarming to say the least. Here a Muslim and a Hindu can petition the jinn-saint for a happy outcome to their love without worrying about being accused of ‘love jihad‘.

Nameless intimacy

Women at Firoz Shah Kotla. Credit: Anand Vivek Taneja

Women at Firoz Shah Kotla. Credit: Anand Vivek Taneja

Though Islam is seen as deeply patriarchal, Taneja writes that it becomes anti-patriarchal here. The jinn-saints are seen as fathers of daughters – the babul – and women outnumber men here. He writes, “I believe that Firoz Shah Kotla and other dargahs serve as a substitute for the relinquished natal home. For women who come to the dargah, the baba, serves as the indulgent, affectionate father of a childhood left behind.” Women talk of their love and desires to the jinn-saints or to strangers with whom they are bound by ‘nameless intimacy’; something they could not do in their normal life, to people they knew well, for fear of reprimands, scandals and gossip.

Taneja records these letters in the book. He later moves from the jinns to cover the other sacred spaces of Delhi, and as a storyteller of Delhi myself what I found fascinating was his connection between sacred water bodies and its connections with people’s lives. The destruction of wells, reservoirs, baolis that were often in temple or dargah compounds meant an end of a common bond between people. An unquestioning acceptance of our fellow beings is diminishing. Delhi marches on, but somewhere its inclusiveness is being compromised.

I felt Taneja’s anger at the neglected documents in state archives, the failure to produce or read them as evidence in cases related to waqf properties and the general apathy that we have developed towards our built heritage.

When I return to the Kotla, I know that I will pay new attention to those who come to pray, and no longer just see them as nameless and faceless but as the people Taneja discovers through his fieldwork, the flesh and blood containing hope, despair, tears and anguish, and celebration.

Rana Safvi is a writer, and the author of Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, First City of Delhi.