Painting a Talking Portrait of Old Delhi

Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

Around the holiday season, one wonders what some of our traditional celebrations in South Asia were like a few hundred years ago and how they were chronicled, if at all. One can find dozens of texts ranging from classical fiction pieces like A Christmas Carol to non-fiction works on European and American celebrations.

But one would be hard-pressed to find accounts of Dussehra or Eid in print. I, for example, grew up celebrating the Persian/Afghan new year – the Nowruz – in Peshawar, but can’t think of a written work that chronicles in detail how the day was celebrated. It was, therefore, unadulterated joy to read the historian Rana Safvi’s latest book, City of My Heart, which talks about how an assortment of festivals and occasions were celebrated and commemorated in Old Delhi, especially by its Mughal rulers.

Rana Safvi
City of my Heart
Hachette India, 2018

City of My Heart is a translation of four Urdu accounts of life in the final days of Muslim rule in Delhi i.e. Dilli ka Aakhiri Deedar (The Last Glimpse of Delhi) by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi; Bazm-e-Aakhir (The Last Assembly) by Munshi Faizuddin; Qila-e-Mu’alla ki Jhalkiya’n (Glimpses of the Exalted Fort) by Arsh Taimuri and Begamat ke Aansu (Tears of the Begums) by Khwaja Hasan Nizami.

The author’s previous book, The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, tracked the various cantonments and royal expansions, such as the Lal Kot in Mehrauli, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Ferozabad, Deenpanah and Shahjahanabad. These monuments were established by various rulers and perished or thrived depending upon the monarch’s whim, mother nature’s blessings or its ire and the invaders’ onslaught or successful fortification against it.

The current work supplements its antecedent in that if those walls and structures could talk, they would tell stories of the life and times of those living within their confines. The god of Urdu poetry, Mir Taqi Mir, had once said:

“Dilli ke na the kooche auraaq-e-musavvir they
jo shakl nazar aaee tasveer nazar aaee”

(The streets of Delhi weren’t mere streets; they were pages of a pictorial book in which one saw a face and picture (of the city and its culture).

Every Dehlvi character, picture and event speaks to the reader and tells the story of the culture that flourished in the cities of Old Delhi. Another quintessential Dehlvi, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, had once written to a friend about what really constituted the old city:

“The life of Delhi was constituted by many displays: The Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily bustle at the Jama Masjid, the weekly excursion over the Jamuna bridge, the annual fair at the Phool Waalon ki Sair; now that these five things are gone, Delhi isn’t Delhi. May be a city of this name existed in India (but doesn’t anymore) …”

Safvi’s work is a narrative recount of precisely these events, the people celebrating them and more.

While the narratives of the elaborate celebration of the Holi, Divali, Eid, Phool Waalon ki Sair and so on, are the leitmotif of the book, what really stands out is the description of the syncretic and composite culture of the era and how various religious denominations came together in celebrating and suffering.

Also read: A City or a Capital? The Trouble With New Delhi’s Identity

One episode recounted in the book is particularly poignant. One of the Mughal rulers of Delhi, Alamgir the Second, was lured to Feroz Shah Kotla – where he was then killed and dumped by his vizier on the banks of Jamuna. Incidentally, a Hindu lady, Ram Kumari, who had previously gotten a glimpse of the king in one of his public viewings – Jharoka Darshan – spotted his corpse. She held on to the dead body till the royal troops arrived and retrieved it. The woman was subsequently honoured by the king’s successor and would tie the Raksha Bandhan knot on the new king’s hands. The tradition continued with the descendants of both Ram Kumari and the Mughals and came to be known as the ‘Salona’, which apparently is still the title for it, in parts of Haryana and Delhi.

As someone of Afghan descent, it was particularly interesting to find names of the signature Afghan/central Asian dishes such as Aash and Borani on the royal Mughal menu. The narration of egg-fighting on Nowruz revived the memories a game which was once played in my hometown Peshawar on the spring equinox.

Safvi records the celebration as thus: “In the afternoon, all the begums and princes gather to fulfil the omen of the fan. They throw fistfuls of gold and silver coins in the air, a tradition on Nauroz. In the evenings, all the salateen males come to the Diwan-e-Khas with Sabzwar hen eggs scented in musk and saffron. The Badshah sits on his masnad and now the egg fight begins. One salateen takes an egg in his hand and hides it, leaving only the tip exposed. A second salateen tries to aim at it with another egg. When the egg breaks, his supporters start celebrating, ‘He has cracked it!'”

Rana Safvi has brought to life not only the eight – but 14 (by her count) – cities of Delhi, and also the people, culture and language(s) they spoke. Syed Wazir Hasan, Munshi Faizuddin, Arsh Taimuri and Khwaja Hasan Nizami are among the writers who saw and recorded the final days of the Mughal period – in intricate detail. The Urdu prose they wrote is extremely rich in idiom and nomenclature, translating which requires both finesse and understanding of the people, places and the civilisation they garnered.

Also read: The Languages of Delhi – A Microcosm of India’s Diversity

Safvi has shown a flair for translation that keeps the letter and spirit of the originals alive. While those of us who can read Urdu have partaken from the rich repertoire of these four chroniclers, those who can’t have been missing out on the fantastic narrative these fine writers had produced. Safvi has saved for posterity, not just the works of the four authors she translated, but also the culture they speak of.

I am of the view that while the translations are meant for a broad readership, they are best enjoyed by those who know both the language of origin and the translation. Those of us who have read Hasan, Faizuddin, Taimuri and Nizami would be doubly enthralled by Safvi’s accuracy in diction and context. She has truly preserved the essence of the four books she ventured to revive.

Someone said about the perils of translation – and love– that when it is faithful it is not fun. I have no qualms in saying that in her love of Delhi, its people and its culture, Rana Safvi has been both faithful and fun!

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistan-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.